LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Meet Malik Cunningham, Louisville's new starting quarterback.
Oh, there has been no official word from coach Bobby Petrino, although that will probably come during his weekly press conference Monday afternoon. Really, it is clear after three games that he has no choice.
Cunningham has now rescued the Cardinals (2-1) on two consecutive weekends, injecting some life into their moribund offense after Jawon Puma Pass proved ineffective, even if others certainly contributed to his failure, including a highly-touted wide receiver corps that has inexplicably dropped numerous passes.
Louisville has Cunningham to thank, in large part, for saving it from what would have been an embarrassing defeat Saturday night against Western Kentucky (0-3).
The redshirt freshman led the Cards to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns after he replaced Pass at the start of the second quarter as they escaped with a come-from-behind 20-17 victory in Cardinal Stadium.
Naturally, Petrino was asked about the quarterback situation after the game, Louisville's final tuneup before opening its ACC season at Virginia (2-1) on Saturday afternoon. He did everything but name Cunningham the starter.
"I think right now we've got to look at Malik and get him going," he said. "Two weeks in a row where he's come in and did a great job. Moved the football, got us in the end zone, competed extremely hard. I didn't think Puma played very well when he was in there. He wasn't executing like we need to get the offense going, so we had to make the change. He's not the only one. We had other opportunities to make plays and weren't able to make them."
Cummingham doesn't have as strong an arm as Pass, but is quicker and has more mobility, adding another dimension to the Cards' offense because he's able to not only pick up yardage with designed quarterback runs but can overcome a broken play with his escapability, similar to Lamar Jackson.
Pass was lifted after going 0-for-3 (with two drops) and an interception on Louisville’s first three series, the pick coming on a first-down play from the Western 25-yard line. Cunningham also struggled initially, with the Cards forced to settle for two field goals after stalling at the Hilltoppers' 6- and 5-yard line. But he settled in and finished with 129 yards rushing on 21 carries and completed 10-of-18 passes for 88 yards.
"It was beautiful how Malik came in and was a leader for us, gave us that big spark with his running and passing," said running back Dae Williams, who scored both Louisville touchdowns on 1-yard runs. "I know I'm very confident that he can come in whenever we need him to play. So I loved to see him running around and keeping a smile on his face.'
Meanwhile, a stoic Pass stood or sat on the sideline with a towel over his head and exhibited no emotion, not good body language for a teammate who is supposed to be a leader.
Cunningham had also led a fourth-quarter rally the previous weekend as Louisville pulled away from a 7-7 tie to a 31-7 victory.
"The whole week they told me I would get a chance to play, so I knew when my time came I had to make plays," Cunningham said. "That's my job. Come off the bench when my name is called and be ready.
Western coach Mike Sanford called Cunningham "the difference in the game for sure."
"We were certainly concerned about preparing for number three," Sanford said. "I made that very clear all week. He allowed them to be more multiple just by virtue of his pure athleticism. Lots of plays broke down and he made big yards on them."
Other than the win and Cunningham's performance, there was little to feel good about for the Cards in their third straight shaky performance, two of which have come against one of the worst teams in the FCS and a WKU team that had dropped seven of its last eight, including a 31-28 home loss to FCS foe Maine.
Louisville's statistics against Western strongly suggested that the Cards, who were 23-point favorites, were extremely fortunate to avoid a major upset. The Toppers held a 428-292 advantage in total yards, converted 9-of-17 first downs to the winners' 2-of-11 and controlled the football for 11 more minutes. Louisville was minus-two yards in total offense in the first quarter.
"We got behind more than we should have, but I appreciate the guys playing their tails off in the second half," Petrino said. "We're not playing very good football right now, and we've got to improve on that. The competition gets tougher and it's really important for us that we get to playing better football."
Big plays by the Cards' defense and special teams unit late in the third quarter finally provided the momentum they needed.
Western drove to a 2nd-and-goal on Louisville’s 1-yard line and looked like a sure bet to improve its lead take an almost insurmountable 21-6. But quarterback Davis Shanley was sacked on back-to-back plays by end Tabarius Peterson and nose tackle G. G. Robinson for losses of 14 yards.
Then sophomore Jared Goldwire blocked a 32-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Nuss and Khane Pass recovered on the Toppers' 31 after the ball was batted around several times by players from both teams.
“That stop boosted our spirits," Peterson said.
Seven plays later, Williams scored the first of his two 1-yard touchdowns on the second play of the fourth period.
"That blocked field goal helped tremendously," Petrino said. "Not only blocking it, but I thought we were going to scoop and score. But the ball kept going backward, had a lot of guys hustling to get it. It allowed us to get into scoring position and get points on the board."
Williams' decisive TD came on Louisville's next series with 5:01 remaining in the game after Western held the ball for six minutes and 14 plays, resulting in a 35-yard field goal by Nuss for a 17-13 lead at the 8:14 mark.
Still, the Hilltoppers made it interesting to the last tick of the clock. After surrendering the ball on downs, then holding UofL, they took over on their own 30-yard line following a punt with 16 seconds left. After an incompletion, Shanley completed a 36-yard pass to Lucky Jackson with one second on the clock to set up a 51-yard field goal by Nuss that would have necessitated overtime.
Nuss's attempt was long enough but barely wide right and Louisville had its 10th straight win over the Toppers in the first meeting between the teams since 1998.
Shanley, a redshirt freshman who replaced starter Steven Duncan on Western's third series, was 22-of-33 for 240 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Fourtenbary at the end of the first quarter. D'Andre Ferby gained 74 yards on 16 carries for the visitors.
"We went toe-to-toe with an ACC power in the state that we call home and we fell short," Sanford said. "But there will be no moral victories claimed by myself, by our team, by any of us."
For the Cards, on the other hand, there was a collective sigh of relief rather than a reason to rejoice.
IAKOPO INJURY NOT SERIOUS
Louisville fifth-year senior strong safety London Iakopo was carted off on a stretcher with his neck in a brace near the end of the game after lying motionless on the field for several minutes. His head collided with teammate Cornelius Sturghill's lower back as they tackled Joshua Samuel by the Cards' sideline.
However, Petrino said the injury doesn't appear to be serious.
"I got word from him afterward that his arms are moving, his fingers are moving," Petrino said. "He's doing good. He should be okay, but he was nervous down there."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.