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The last regular-season game of the Louisville Cardinals was an absolute beatdown from SEC opponent and biggest rival, the Kentucky Wildcats. The biggest reason for that loss was Louisville’s inability to stop the run, particularly by the Wildcat talented quarterback, Lynn Bowden, who set a SEC rushing record by a quarterback in that game.
So when the Cardinals drew the Mississippi State Bulldogs in their hard-earned and unexpected bowl game, their fans were a little less than excited with the matchup. The main factor being that their starting running back, Kylin Hill, came into the game as the SEC’s leading rusher.
Instead, the game could not have started more perfectly for UofL. Louisville won the toss and deferred to the second half allowing Mississippi State to start with the ball. And that often-criticized Cardinal defense started with turning over the Bulldog offense on downs. That included holding Hill to two carries and negative yards. Unfortunately, Hill was also injured on the second carry and would not be a factor in the game.
Louisville got the ball after a great Mississippi State kick on their own third yard line. Yet they marched down the field in efficient fashion. There were big runs by Cardinal quarterback Micale Cunnigham and leading rusher Javian Hawkins. There were great catches by leading receiver Tutu Atwell and tight end Jordan Davis. Louisville moved down the field ninety-five yards almost effortlessly to the delight of the many fans who made the short trip from Louisville.
And then, with three more yards to go to score the game’s first touchdown, junior wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick fumbled his catch and Mississippi State recovered.
The perfect Cardinal start was no more.
To the defense’s credit, Louisville came out initially strong and held the Bulldogs to have to complete a long third down. But on what would become a short-term theme, the Cards forgot to cover Mississippi State’s quarterback Tommy Stevens who ran for 24 yards and a big first down. The Bulldogs scored shortly after to lead the game 7-0.
The next Cardinal offensive possession was a failure, turning it over on three downs. The energy of the Carinal fans was fading quickly. But the defense made another hard-fought stop and the Cards got the ball back. But they couldn’t capitalize and were again back on the sideline after a short possession.
The Louisville defense again went to work, and a strong tackle was made by Louisville junior middle linebacker, Dorian Etheridge. At the end of the tackle Etheridge was trying to get up from the field and from the video appeared to be held by the ankle by a Mississippi State player. After yanking his foot a couple times, he pushed off the player with his foot. A bit of a scrum ensued and several flags were thrown. The outcome was an ejection of Etheridge due to “kicking” his opponent.
This call incited the Louisville players, fans and coaches. It appeared that Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield even called a timeout to get more time to express his frustration to the referees. The call was apparently non-reviewable, and play would continue. But the boos from the Cards’ fans lasted for several minutes.
And Mississippi went on to score again. It grew very quiet on the side of the large contingent of Louisville fans fearing the worst of their team unable to again stop an SEC team.
But what appeared to be an unfair ejection of their player instead put some fire into the Cardinal team. Louisville started to make its way down the field and then capitalized on a play that Satterfield would later say they had practiced all season, and since “it was the last game, needed to get it off the call sheet”. Executed perfectly, former quarterback Atwell was tossed the ball from Cunningham and threw a perfect pass to freshman tight end Marshon Ford and the Cards had cut the lead in half.
On the pursuing kickoff Mississippi State fumbled and Louisville recovered. Although the Cards failed to capitalize and were burdened by several silly penalties, it appeared the momentum tides had completely turned to the favor of the Cardinals.
The Cards closed out the half with one more successful scoring drive with a field goal by kicker Ryan Chalifoux.
Coach Satterfield would later call the third quarter the “most complete” of the Louisville season. He was pleased by the play of all parts of the game: offense, defense and special teams. The biggest highlight was a forced fumble by Louisville’s Gary McCrae on the Bulldog’s quarterback, followed by a “scoop and a score” by senior Khane Pass. The Cards would end up outscoring their opponents 31-0 between the second and fourth quarters, and Louisville started the final period up 31-14.
Mississippi State continued to fight and made the game a little interesting pulling it within 10 at 31-21 with 10:25 to play. But the Cardinals would also score again. The final was a Louisville ten-point victory, 38-28.
Cunningham was named the MVP finishing with 279 yards passing and 81 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Atwell set the all-time season receiving record (succeeding Harry Douglas) with his 147 yards. Hawkins also rushed for 105 and a TD.
After the game, the field filled quickly with exuberant folks dressed in red and black. The celebration may have been bigger than what normally would have reflected a now eight-win team over a team finishing six and seven. But that eight-win team, the Cardinals, were also 2-10 last season. The stories all season of needing to rebuild a culture that had completely dismantled was complete with a fairy-tale ending.
Post-game Satterfield commented on how special this ending was for this team, this staff, this “family”. And how important it was for the future of Cardinal football.