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Louisville’s Weakness Exposed vs Air Force

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb reflects on what cost the Cardinals in the First Responder Bowl.

The Louisville passing defense improved as the 2021 college season progressed. But against the most unlikely foe, it became a bugaboo for the Cardinals once again Tuesday.

Despite averaging the second-fewest passing yards per game in the FBS, Air Force had several explosive plays through the air, leading to a 31-28 loss for Louisville in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Dallas.

The Louisville secondary was already the team’s biggest weakness before the postseason, but this result makes it abundantly clear where the Cardinals need to improve to compete for the Atlantic division title next season.

Air Force wasn’t necessarily bad at passing during the 2021 regular season – the team just didn’t do it very often. The Falcons came into bowl season with the No. 1 run offense in the FBS, amassing greater than 50 yards more per game on the ground than any other team. That happens when one averages 65 rushing attempts per game.

Meanwhile, through the air, Air Force had just 103 attempts the entire regular season. Coming into the First Responder Bowl, Air Force possessed an active streak of 91 straight running plays on offense.

The streak continued for three more plays, but after a three-and-out on their first possession, Falcons quarterback Haaziq Daniels then began throwing. He tossed a 40-yard pass to jump start Air Force’s second drive and then a 61-yard touchdown to Brandon Lewis on the team’s third possession.

Daniels found Lewis again for a 64-yard score a little past the midway point of the second quarter. Lewis was wide open on the big play, but he masterfully juked out two Louisville defenders to turn the explosive strike into another touchdown.

Air Force only attempted 10 passes, so Louisville secondary could chalk up its struggles Tuesday to a small sample size.

Still, the Cardinals allowed nine completions on 10 attempts for 252 yards and two passing touchdowns. Daniels passed for a new career high, averaging more than 25 yards per attempt.

Credit Louisville’s run defense for holding Air Force to 3.1 yards per carry. But dedicating its defensive game plan to stopping the Falcons’ ground attack left Louisville’s secondary open to allowing big gashes through the air.

The Cardinals allowed the second-most passing yards per game in the ACC through the end of October (281.38 passing yards per game). The Louisville secondary improved in November to yield only 172.5 passing yards per contest.

Those encouraging improvement signs went out the window with Louisville’s bowl performance. And it’s a little unclear how the Cardinals defense gets better next year against the pass.

Louisville has just two defensive backs signed in the 2022 recruiting class – both of which are safeties. One of the safeties (MJ Griffin) is a transfer from Temple.

Those two safeties will work to replace senior Qwynnterrio Cole and graduate student Kenderick Duncan, who were Louisville’s two starting safeties this season. It’s anybody’s guess whether Griffin and a freshman will be better than Cole and Duncan.

More importantly, Louisville will not add any help at cornerback, as the program has zero players signed at the position in the 2022 class. Improvement must be made for the Cardinals to take a step forward in pass defense.

The slot cornerback role is key too. It was sophomore transfer Trey Franklin who had trouble staying in the same zip code as Lewis on Air Force’s two long passing touchdowns in the first half.

Returning quarterback Malk Cunningham, who accounted for 270 yards and two touchdowns in the First Responder Bowl, gives Louisville hope it can win 10 games next year for the first time since 2013. But if the pass defense doesn’t improve, Cunningham will be asked to do too much as was the case Tuesday against Air Force.