Quarterbacks change, ugly offense doesn't as Virginia rips Cards 27-3

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- If you thought the Louisville football team's offense had hit rock bottom and there was no way to go but up, look down.

After a pair of uninspired performances against two vastly inferior opponents, it probably wasn't realistic to think the Cardinals (2-2, 0-1) were going to somehow suddenly transform themselves into an offensive machine for the start of their Atlantic Coast Conference season, even against a mediocre defense.

But it wasn't too much to expect a better showing than the listless, ugly exhibition UofL staged in an embarrassing 27-3 to Virginia (3-1) during both teams' ACC opener Saturday in Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.

UofL coach Bobby Petrino switched quarterbacks again midway through the game, but it didn't matter who was at the controls, the result was the same. Neither Malik Cunningham or Jawon Puma Pass could light a fire under what is shaping up to be not only the worst offense of Petrino's career but one of the worst in Louisville history.

The Cards started the afternoon ranked 119th of 129 FBS teams in total offense and will drop even further next week after managing a mere 214 yards against the Cavaliers, who countered with 401 in snapping a three-game losing streak to UofL.

The yardage was the lowest for a Louisville team coached by Petrino, undercutting the 216 yards  in a 37-7 loss to Memphis in 2003.

 UofL's only points came on a 20-yard field goal by Brandon Creque early in the third quarter, making it the Cards' lowest output under Petrino and only the second time during his nine-plus season they have failed to score a touchdown. The other TD shutout came in a 29-9 loss to LSU in the 2016 Citrus Bowl.

UofL also had three turnovers that Virginia turned into 17 points. The Cards, who trailed 6-0 at halftime, have now failed to score a first-half touchdown in any of their four games this season, with their 10 first-half points coming on a punt return TD (vs. Indiana State) and a field goal (vs. Western Kentucky).

"Offensively, we're just not very good right now," Petrino said on his post-game radio show. "That's my responsibility. I take full responsibility for it. We just haven't been able to get into a rhythm, move the ball and get it in the end zone. We had some opportunities. The defense played good for 2 1/2 quarters, almost  three quarters, but the offense has to do their part and get the ball in the end zone. Like I said, that's on me."

If you need any more proof of how bad Louisville's offense was, here it is: 

Given the ball on the Virginia 3-yard line thanks to an interception and 34-yard return by Rodjay Burns, the Cards still couldn't punch it in against a defense that gave up 364 yards and 31 points to Ohio University of the MAC the previous week. Two running plays by Jeremy Smith and one by Trey Smith produced zero yards and brought on Creque for the field goal with 9:45 left in the third quarter.

Malik Cunningham made his first collegiate start for the Cards, but after they gained just 88 yards on 30 plays in the first half, Petrino switched to Pass, who had started the first two games before being relieved by Cunningham. 

"I just didn't feel like Malik was seeing things downfield," Petrino explained. "He's a competitor and he's running and he's trying his hardest, but you've got to be able to see things and distribute the ball. With Puma's experience, the different things they were doing coverage-wise, I felt he gave us the better opportunity."

But nothing changed. Cunningham finished 6-of-9 for 35 yards, with an interception, and rushed 10 times for 26 yards. Pass was 10-of-19 for 113 yards, with one pick. Petrino used three running backs, but they combined for just 39 yards and a 2.4 average.

Operating out of Virginia's option attack, quarterback Bryce Perkins sparked the win, completing 17-of-24 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns and running for 78 yards on 14 carries. The Cards limited the Cavs' best receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus, to 29 yards on four catches, but Perkins distributed the ball well, with nine other players making at least one reception.

UofL's defense performed well for awhile, but seemed to lose interest or wear down late in the third quarter after Perkins completed a 67-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Chris Sharp, only his second reception of the year, to make it 13-3.

UofL still had a glimmer of hope at that point, but on Louisville's next possession, Pass threw into triple coverage for the Cards' sixth interception of the season. Virginia took over on its own 38-yard line and Perkins eventually threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Joe Reed, who was left uncovered on a 3rd-and-14 play to give the hosts a 20-3 lead with 13:08 remaining.

Pass's fumble set up Virginia's final TD, with Perkins scoring on an 8-yard run with 6:14 left,  hurdling UofL safety TreSean Smith at the goal line.

"I thought the defense kept us in the game, gave us an opportunity to get into position to win the game, but obviously we just weren't able to get it done," Petrino said. "We've got to get better, get out on the practice field and find a way to execute and get better."

Alex Kupper, who was a starting offensive lineman for UofL teams from 2010-12 and is now the analyst for WHAS Radio's broadast of Louisville games, was withering throughout the afternoon in his criticism of his former team.

"I am without words to describe how bad an offensive performance this is by Louisville," Kupper  said late in the game. "It's very disheartening to see guys who seem like they don't want to play football, who lollygag around and stroll up to the line like they've done something. God forbid what Clemson will do to us."

Of course, the Cards have plenty to worry about before they get to Clemson on Nov. 3. The way they're playing, just about any of their remaining opponents -- starting with Florida State at home next Saturday -- is capable of embarrassing them.

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 www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com. 

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