LOUISVILLE — When does Louisville play its opening 2022-23 basketball game?
That’s a question many U of L fans might be asking after watching the football team wobble to a stunning upset loss in its debut against Syracuse on Saturday night in the JMA Wireless Dome.
So much for the hype. Turns out the Cardinals’ glorious prospects by coach Scott Satterfield and his staff talked about throughout fall camp were overly optimistic. Instead, their sloppy, ineffective performance on both sides of the ball in the 31-7 defeat looked suspiciously like they are headed for another disappointing, underachieving season while trying to rebound from back-to-back losing campaigns.
After dominating the Orange for three straight years, averaging 42.3 points per game and holding them without a touchdown in the last two meetings, the roles flipped and it was U of L that was overmatched despite being a 5-point favorite. It was U of L’s lowest point total in an opener since a 27-2 loss to Kentucky in 2008, a 5-7 season under Steve Kragthorpe.
Considering Syracuse is a team picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic Division, red flags are flying all over in regard to the future. Much more was expected of this team, with 17 returning starters, along with an influx of talent from the transfer portal, playmakers on offense, a veteran offensive line and an allegedly improved defense.
“This team was really, really locked in. It was a complete win,” SU coach Dino Babers said.
And a complete loss for the Cards. Start with U of L quarterback Malik Cunningham. The sixth-year senior endured one of the roughest outings of his career. Rather than leading a comeback from a manageable 17-7 deficit late in the third quarter, he basically took his team out of contention with turnovers on three consecutive possessions — two interceptions and a fumble. He also fumbled on the next drive, but U of L recovered to prevent further damage.
The first interception and the fumble led to Syracuse touchdowns that put the game out of reach with 8:40 remaining. Cunningham finished with 152 passing yards and a mere 34 rushing as he saw his streak of 30 straight games accounting for at least one touchdown come to an end.
“It hurts,” Cunningham said. “I’m lost for words, honestly. I’m very disappointed in myself. I let my team down, let my city down. I just got to play better. We all got to play better.”
Although Cunningham has been one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the ACC the past two seasons, he wasn’t even the best QB on the field in the Dome. That distinction belonged, surprisingly enough, to Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader. While this is being called the “Year of the Quarterback” in the league, a search through the list of the outstanding signal-callers won’t uncover Shrader, whose 53% completion percentage last year was the worst in the ACC.
But Shrader turned in an all-conference performance against U of L’s porous defense, passing for 237 yards and two touchdowns and running for 95 yards and another TD, with his 342 total yards, eight more than U of L’s team total. He completed 18-of-25 passes.
“He’s a tough guy to tackle in space. He’s a big guy,” Satterfield said of the 6-4, 228-pound junior. “We didn’t wrap up several times, tried to shoulder tackle, and he was able to break those tackles and extend those drives. Those are huge plays on those third downs to be able to get our defense off the field. We’ve just got to do a better job of tackling.”
The Cards also couldn’t handle Syracuse’s star running back, Sean Tucker, who had 98 yards rushing, along with six receptions for 85 yards and another TD, scoring on a run of four yards and a 55-yard pass. In all, the Orange compiled 449 yards total offense while converting 6-of-11 third downs. It could have been worse: Syracuse committed 18 penalties for 107 yards, most of them false starts by the offensive line.
The only bright spots for U of L were Tennessee transfer running back Tiyon Evans and former Central Arkansas wide receiver Tyler Hudson. Evans rushed for 89 yards on 13 carries, the most yards by a running back in his U of L debut since Eric Shelton gained 151 against Kentucky in 2003. Evans scored the Cards’ only touchdown on a 36-yard run in the first quarter. Hudson caught eight passes for 102 yards.
Hudson’s receptions were highlighted by a 45-yarder from wideout Braden Smith, who took a handoff from Cunningham and drilled a pass to Hudson that put the ball on the Syracuse 4-yard line in the second quarter. But the Cards failed to score.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed in how we came out and played,” Satterfield said. “We didn’t execute very well offensively and, defensively, we missed a lot of tackles.”
U of L doesn’t have much time to regroup, with a short week of preparation for Friday night’s game against Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. The Cards defeated the Knights 42-35 last season in Cardinal Stadium, but UCF is expecting a banner year, with 14 returning starters.
“We’ve got to do a great job of getting the guys back confident to know that we can go out and play well,” Satterfield said.
That might not be an easy task after Saturday’s dismal showing.