College football bowl games, outside of the New Years’ Six, have become fertile ground for opinion and rumination. Is it honorable for a matriculating player to sit? Does one team have more at stake with a win or loss? For the Louisville Cardinals the answer was generally clear.
Despite a devastating loss to in-state rival Kentucky, seven wins on the heels of a 2-10 embarrassment of a season meant Scott Satterfield and the Cards were playing with house money. But good enough was not enough for this team. Cardinals football let it ride and came out on top in a 38-28 victory over Mississippi State in the 2019 Music City Bowl.
“We got down 14 points early in the game, and the kids didn’t flinch. I mean, they kept playing, kept battling. Next thing you know you’re right back in the game, and then we grabbed that momentum and then we poured it on.”
Scott Satterfield’s perspective on the first half of the game likely differs from that of most of Card Nation. A kickoff out of bounds to start the game. A 96 yard drive capped by a fumble at the three yard line. An ensuing defensive collapse to allow Mississippi State’s first touchdown on a 99 yard, eight play drive. All signs pointed to another lackluster defensive performance accompanied by a sputtering offense; all the hallmarks of the loss at Kentucky.
A scoreless first quarter for the Cards ticked over to a second quarter that saw the loss of key defender Dorian Etheridge. With a Mississippi State player wrapped around Etheridge’s leg, the junior ILB attempted to kick his way out of the Bulldog player’s grasp. When the PAC-12 crew reviewed the video, it wasn’t the Mississippi State player’s hold but Etheridge’s kicks that earned the penalty, and an ejection for the Cardinals defender. Three plays later senior Bulldogs RB Nick Gibson picked up just his sixth rushing TD of the season, and Louisville faced a 14-0 deficit.
“…we new that us being down 14 really knowing we’ve been down 21 before and came back from it, so we just brought everybody together, just stayed level headed, and you see what happened.” ~Micale Cunningham
The ensuing Louisville drive set the tone for the remainder of the game, and once again proved Scott Satterfield’s trust in his team and the team’s trust in each other. A good portion of Micale Cunningham’s 81 rushing yards on 16 attempts moved the Cardinals into Mississippi State territory and set up the opportunity for some trickery. Pundits and commentators have pointed out the fact that Tutu Atwell was a QB in high school ad nauseam. In Nashville it bore fruit on a 33 yard pass from Tutu to Marshon Ford to put the Cardinals on the board.
Much to the very sizable contingent of travelling Cardinals fans’ delight, a Mississippi State fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave Louisville the ball in Bulldogs territory, and it seemed a total momentum shift had the pendulum swinging well towards the Cards. Not wanting to make things too easy on themselves the Cardinals offense squandered the opportunity with back-to-back penalties and a Cunningham pass for a sure TD that sailed just over Dez Fitzpatrick’s fingers on 4th and 11. A defensive stop as time wound down was followed by a long drive for a Ryan Chalifoux field goal to salvage some of the energy and go into the locker room at the half trailing 14-10.
Before proceeding it’s crucial to talk about that defensive stop at the close of the half. Redshirt senior Boosie Whitlow’s pancake on leading Mississippi State rusher Kylin Hill to force the punt and set up the field goal drive was one of many defensive exclamation points throughout the game. On his defense, Scott Satterfield said, “…you’ve got to think the last three weeks all they’ve heard on defense is how bad they were. Just like you keep hearing that crap, you’ve got to go out do something about it, and that’s what they did.”
Stacking up the Louisville defensive line against the Mississippi State offensive line, the Bulldogs have a literal half ton advantage. The Cardinals were not daunted. 10 tackles for loss pushed State back 48 yards on the day and the Louisville D-line notched four sacks, the first time that was accomplished since the Virginia game. The SEC’s leading rusher Kylin Hill was held to just three yards on seven attempts while the Bulldogs were held to just 145 yards on the ground.
Without any backup, a seeming injury to DB Isaiah Hayes that set him out for a play had many murmuring in the press box, and saw Miss. St. pounce quickly. But the Louisville secondary held firm and fortunately Hayes was back in a couple of plays later. Looking to force another punt in the third quarter, the Cards focused on a scrambling Tommy Stevens. Instead of just another stop the ball was popped loose by Gr. Gary McRae, took a friendly bounce, and found its way directly into the hands of Khane Pass. With glee, R-Sr. Pass sprinted to the end zone for his first career defensive touchdown and the second for the Cardinals on the season. Fittingly, the first also came in Nashville thanks to a Rodjay Burns return against WKU.
The much maligned Louisville Cardinals defense, in many cases deservedly so, had roared to life after giving up 14 points to open the game. Mississippi State would not put any additional points on the board until the fourth quarter thanks to a fumble, a punt, a punt, a fumble, and a punt in consecutive drives. It was fitting that the upperclassmen, who had suffered through so much, led the way throughout the game. Whitlow’s two sacks, McRae’s strip, and Pass’s touchdown were accompanied by seven tackles from Cornelius Sturghill. Men whose byword was resilience chose to stick it out, and a mere 14-point deficit was small change from their perspective.
And while the Cardinals defense forced five consecutive stops, the Louisville offense did what had to be done. 31 unanswered points were firmly underlined by two Marshon Ford touchdowns but punctuated by a 24 yard Micale Cunningham to Devante Peete TD pass. It was Peete’s second career touchdown, and his first since 2015. The symbolism, young and old, was palpable. But to Cunningham it was just another component of this team’s rejuvenation. “I’ve been knowing Peete since high school. He has so much passion, so much love, just knowing where he comes from and that background he comes from, and it’s just crazy to see Peete make plays like that….”
Cunningham’s leadership earned him the Music City Bowl MVP award, and demonstrated that for the Louisville offense it’s the future that holds the most promise. Cunningham’s two TD passes were joined by a late-game Javian Hawkins rushing TD. And while Tutu Atwell’s passing TD would normally be the top highlight, the sophomore had his sites set on a greater prize. Knowing he needed just over 100 yards to grab the school record for receiving yards in a season, he made sure Micale Cunningham knew the tally. “I’ve been doing my research and seeing how many yards I need, and I told him, hey, man, throw it to me and I’m going to grab it. Just keep coming to me, and he’s like, I got you….” A Cunningham to Atwell pass set the stage for Tutu’s 147 yards on 9 attempts and establishment a new school record for receiving yards in a season with 1,276.
Some late game energy from the Bulldogs gave them two fourth quarter touchdowns, but Hawkins’ touchdown and the Cardinals defense saw fit to put things away and make the final score 38-28. A program that seemed hopeless and adrift after a 2-10 season had roared back under the guidance of Scott Satterfield and staff to hoist the Music City Bowl trophy and finish with eight wins to five losses.
Players walked over to the sideline to give family members their helmets as keepsakes. Dwayne Ledford stood alone in the end zone, a smile on his glowing face as he searched the crowd for his diminutive wife. Players used the now famous whiteboards to send messages like, “Party in the locker room. ACC ONLY!!!” Scott Satterfield hoisted the Music City Bowl trophy with a look on his face that can only be described as ecstasy.
“But when you have a season like this, you win eight games, you overcome so much, when no one thought we were going to win any games this year, picked dead last in our conference this year, and all the things that we were able to accomplish. But it just goes to show you when you have belief in one another and you focus on the team and not an individual, then great things can happen.”
It’s impossible to completely wash away the bitter taste of the loss at Kentucky, as it would be in any rivalry game. But back to the question of who needed to win this game more, the answer has to be Louisville. Despite the benefit of a 7-5 record compared to last season’s 2-10, it was important to finish the season on a high note and diminish (as much as possible) the sting of defeat at the hands of the Wildcats.
The Cardinals accomplished that in the same way they’ve managed all season. The 2019 Cardinals football team bonded and became family, thanks in large part to the ministrations of Satterfield, Ledford, Brown, and others.
A new year begins tonight. But the new era for Louisville football began in December 2018. And per Scott Satterfield the Cardinals don’t intend on stopping anytime soon. Training for the 2020 season begins next week, with 20 new faces joining the family.