The University of Louisville football program, the past two seasons, was synonymous with explosive offense. The Cardinals ranked third nationally in total offense in 2016 and 2017.
So, it’s uncommon to hear that the Cardinals are looking for consistency from their offensive unit.
Louisville may have uncovered a glimmer of that identity during the win over Indiana State and is working to revert to form beginning Saturday against Western Kentucky.
“I thought (redshirt senior running back) Jeremy Smith did a nice job and gave us some physical hard running, broke some tackles,” head coach Bobby Petrino said. “I was impressed with him. And then, (redshirt freshman running back) Colin (Wilson) hit a couple big runs at the end. But, you know, it was a weird game.”
Deadlocked in a 7-7 tie in the third quarter, the Cardinals took to the ground to score 24 second-half points to capture a 31-7 win over the Sycamores. Jeremy Smith rushed for 56 yards, and reserve quarterback Malik Cunningham gained 54 yards on the ground and directed four scoring drives.
The redshirt freshman quarterback scored from one yard and later hit wide receiver Jaylen Smith with a 34-yard pass.
“He’s just a great athlete, a tremendous athlete,” Petrino said of Cunningham. “Good instincts, feels it – can feel it sometimes – but you coach to technique and you coach the reads, the progressions, understanding protections. But, they have to have instincts.
“Each quarterback has to have instincts, and some of them have the instinct to be able to make a guy miss and run. Some have the instincts to shuffle in the pocket and make the pass. They all have their special talent.”
The Cardinals haven’t settled on a running back combination after the first two weeks, as six different players have touched the ball, but no one has more than nine carries after the first two weeks.
“I thought that Jeremy did a really good job,” Petrino said. “I know Jeremy can play and play really well. He’s done that for us. He’s led us to victories. Colin (Wilson) had a good week of practice, his best week of practice. He did a good job when he got his attempts in the game. And I still like getting those young guys out there. Keep trying to change the speed. And I thought that Hassan’s (Hall) done a nice job and I think he’ll continue to get work.”
While the Cardinals have searched for different combinations in the backfield, the offensive line was shuffled around in the win on Saturday. Petrino inserted Nathan Scheler into the center spot and put his two mammoth linemen, Mekhi Becton and Lukayus McNeil, at tackle. McNeil started 12 games at guard last season and the 2018 opener versus Alabama.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking and considering for a couple of weeks now, and I wanted to see us practice that way,” Petrino said. “I liked the way we practiced that way. I thinking that we’d be real powerful. I wanted to see how Mekhi would play out there on the open end all by himself, and he did a really good job. We had power blocking.”
The Cardinals also made some changes at the quarterback position versus Indiana State. Jawon Pass, who left the game due to injury, earned the start versus the Sycamores and went 8 of 14 for 89 yards before Cunningham came in to lead the Cardinals to the win. While Petrino has the confidence in Pass’ ability, he’s not opposed to playing two quarterbacks.
“Going into the season, it was my idea that we’d have one and he’s our starter and we’d go play,” Petrino said. “We have used two quarterbacks here before. When Stefan (LeFors) was a senior, we felt like Brian (Brohm) was going to be the future. We were really looking forward, so we brought him in the second quarter and he played the second quarter.
“It’s really the only time I’ve played two quarterbacks. I’m not totally against it, but I think we need to get them healthy and see where they’re at.”
The Cardinals begin preparation for Saturday’s game when the team returns to practice Tuesday at 3:50 p.m.
By Rocco Gasparro