Louisville seeks return to respectability after 2020 falloff

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville must bounce back from a losing finish for the second time in three seasons.

Scott Satterfield seeks a repeat of the 2019 resolve that turned the program around and perhaps take the team a step further. With seven starters back on each side of the ball, the third-year Cardinals coach believes they can climb back to respectability.

“A lot of positives going into this year,” Satterfield said at last month’s Atlantic Coast Conference media session. “Defense is continuing to get better. Offensively, guys have a great grasp of what we’re doing on. We have a lot of talented players that are going to be able to play.

“I’m excited about what we’re able to accomplish this year and what we’ll be able to play in this league.”

Louisville surprisingly took a step back record-wise last fall, finishing 4-7 in a 10-game ACC docket following an eight-win turnaround season and bowl victory in 2019. The Cardinals’ high-powered offense provided a bright spot as it continued to thrive behind a nucleus featuring mobile quarterback Malik Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick — who combined for 2,280 yards and 17 touchdowns. Atwell and Fitzpatrick were second- and fourth-round NFL draft selections respectively while Hawkins signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons.

But for all of those yards and points, Louisville did itself in at times by allowing sacks and coughing up the ball, the latter of which left them ranked 119th nationally in turnover margin at minus-12. A midseason COVID-19 outbreak that depleted the defense only deepened the Cardinals’ struggles.

Satterfield will take over the play calling with Cunningham running the offense, with both hoping to reduce or erase the turnovers that cost the Cardinals several close games last season. A Louisville defense that continued to make strides under Bryan Brown aims to become stingier and opportunistic.

More than anything, the Cardinals appear determined to put 2020 behind them and resemble the squad that surprised the league not long ago.

“We knew who was coming back and we knew what we wanted to do when we came back,” senior linebacker C.J. Avery said last week. “We’re on a mission to prove ourselves right.”

Some other things to watch as Louisville tries to rebound from a losing season:

TEAM UNITY

Satterfield encountered controversy last fall for talking with South Carolina about the then-vacant head coach opening.. Satterfield eventually apologized to the fan base in an open letter and reiterated his commitment to the program that players took to heart.

“We know where he stands,” offensive lineman Renato Brown said. “We’d been told since the first day he got here that he wants to be a Cardinal, and we believe and trust him.”

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Cunningham is back after passing for 2,615 of his 3,224 offensive yards and 20 of his 27 touchdowns last season. The junior has some potential new targets in tight end Marshon Ford and receiver Braden Smith, sophomores who each had at least 300 yards receiving in 2020. But Cunningham’s focus is ball protection after he threw 12 interceptions and fumbled several times.

CREATE TAKEAWAYS

Louisville’s 3-4 defensive scheme ranked 39th nationally at 369.1 yards allowed per game, but the Cardinals mustered just 22 sacks and 12 turnovers. Coaches are stressing improvement in the latter after defenders dropped at least a half dozen potential interceptions.

“That is really key, that we get more turnovers,” Brown said. “Our motto is we got to be plus-one.”

MAX PROTECTION

Fifth-year senior Cole Bentley is one of four returning starters on an offensive line that gives Louisville one of its most seasoned units. They’ve been key to the Cardinals’ success, but their goal this season is improved pass protection after yielding 29 sacks last fall.

THE SCHEDULE

Louisville opens on Labor Day in prime time against Mississippi in Atlanta and hosts former American Athletic Conference foe Central Florida on Sept. 18. The Cardinals begin ACC play the following week at Florida State and will seek their first series win against defending league champ Clemson on Nov. 6. They close against in-state rival Kentucky on Nov. 27.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves

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