Cards, Syracuse trying to escape last place in ACC

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - College football bowl season has arrived.


Too early for that, you say? Must be a mistake.


Not so fast. Submited for your consideration: Louisville vs. Syracuse. Call it the Basement Bowl, which is the only one either of these teams is going to see this season.


Okay maybe facetious,and not a little bit sarcastic. But that's exactly what Friday night's looks like for the hapless Cardinals  (2-6, 1-6) and Orange (1-7, 1-6), who will meet at 7 o'clock in Cardinal Stadium (ESPN) to try and put a razor-thin distance between themselves and last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.


Actually, there are four teams fighting to avoid that undignified fate, the other two being Florida State and Duke, both of whom are also 1-6 in the league. Hot on the quartet's heels is Georgia Tech (2-4).


Not surprisingly, the Seminoles and Yellow Jackets have graciously provided UofL and the Cuse with their only ACC victories. The Cards defeated FSU 48-16 on Oct. 24 while the Orange have gone nearly two months without a win after beating Tech 37-20 on Sept. 26, a team that defeated the Cards 46-27 two weeks later, if you're into comparative scores.


These guys are definitely not ready for prime time players, but someone has to fill ESPN's Friday night obligation to the ACC, even if it means a matchup that isn't exactly captivating.


Vegas oddsmakers believe that Syracuse, with a five-game losing streak, is more deserving of the 15th spot in the ACC, having installed Louisville as an 18-point favorite.


This wasn't supposed to be UofL's destiny given the return of 18 starters from a surprisingly successful 2019 season. With tons of experience, a dynamic offense, an improving defense and a favorable schedule, the Cards were picked to finish fifth in the overall ACC standings and even received two first-place votes (divisions were eliminated due to the pandemic-shortened league schedule).


But they have either (a) underperformed, (b) were overrated, (C) got very lucky in winning several close games during their run to 8-5 last season, or a combination of all four. Take your pick.


Whatever the case, the Cards insisted this week that they're not throwing in the towel in their final three games even though a winning record is out of reach and their star running back, Javian Hawkins, has bailed to concentrate on getting ready for the 2021 NFL draft, and undoubtedly to eliminate the risk of an injury that could derail his pro aspirations when little or nothing is at stake for UofL the rest of the way.


"That's the nature of life and the game of football," linebacker and team captain C.J. Avery said. "Why go out there and not fight? So these next three games we're gonna give it our all. It's extremely disappointing, but the thing about life is you're always going to face adversity and in football you're going to face adversity.


"So you've got to know how to bounce back and keep fighting because eventually good things will happen for you. Absolutely, it's definitely getting difficult for us as a team, but we've just got to find a way to stay together and keep fighting."


Quarterback Malik Cunningham, another captain, concurred with Avery's assessment going into the home stretch of the season against Wake Forest (Nov. 28) in Cardinal Stadium and on the road at Boston College (Dec. 12) following the Syracuse game.


"We want to win these games out," he said. "We've been trying to do everything right throughout the weeks. We've just been coming up short. Like coach always says, "God is putting us through a lot of adversity to show this team something."


In UofL's last outing, a 31-17 loss at Virginia, Cunningham put his words into action, accounting for 358 total yards, with a rushing and a passing touchdown.


The biggest hurdle the Cards will face Friday has nothing to do with Syracuse, but with their own glaring flaw -- generosity with the football. UofL has forked over the ball to opponents 18 times, with nine interceptions and nine fumbles. Only Duke (25 turnovers), Georgia Tech (19) and Mississippi State (19) have been worse. And with just three picks and three fumble recoveries themselves, the Cards' turnover margin of minus-12 is worst in the nation. In contrast, they had 17 turnovers in 13 games last year while creating 20.


 "We're not good enough to have those turnovers and still win," UofL coach Scott Satterfield said. "We have to play spot on mistake-free football all of the time and that takes extreme focus by our players and our staff throughout the week and on game day. We do individual drills where we're working on ball security every day. We try to make it as difficult as we can at practice and we haven't had much issue until this year. The teams I've been a part of, we've done a great job taking care of the football. It's just one of those things that this year that it's plaguing us."


Avery reduced the dilemma down to its simplest terms, saying, "We've got to find a way to create more turnovers than the opposing defense."


While Louisville will be close to full strength on defense for the first time in three games with the return of several starters who have been sidelined due to coronavirus issues, the same can't be said of the offense.


Besides the absence of Hawkins, wide receiver Tutu Atwell is considered questionable after being injured against Virginia. On a positive note, backup running back Hassan Hall is expected to return after missing three games, and the rushing attack didn't suffer against the Cavaliers without Hawkins and his 117.4 yards per game.


Cunningham (197), Jalen Mitchell (76) and Maurice Burkley (44) combined for 317 yards and an 8.1 average against a team that is one of the strongest against the rush in the ACC. Only Clemson ran better, marginally, against the Cavs than UofL, with 329 yards and an 8.44 average.


"Whoever the quarterback or running back is, we expect them to do something with the ball," UofL offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford said.


Syracuse, coming off a bye week, has had to deal with numerous injuries and opt-outs this season and it shows. The Orange's anemic offense has produced just 263.8 yards per game, last in the ACC and 120th in the FBS, and their defense has allowed 469.3 yards per game, 100th nationally, along with 31.1 ppg. SU has converted a league-worst 23.9 percent of its third downs.


Satterfield noted that the Cards have been in contention in the fourth quarter or final minutes in nearly every game and said he's confident they can finish the season strong.


"It's tough and it's very frustrating, but we just have to continue to work," he said. "We are certainly not going to quit. It's amazing the fine line that college football comes down to. If you make a couple of plays, you win, and you look back to last year and we made those plays and we win eight games. This year we're not making the plays we need to, but this adversity is going to make us a better program as we move forward."

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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