Pitt's defense too tough for Cards; Cunningham hurt

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Pittsburgh's stout defense lived up to its billing. Louisville's explosive offense did not.


So, despite an improved performance by their own defense, the No. 24 Cardinals (1-2, 0-2 ACC)  fell to the No. 21 Panthers (3-0, 2-0 ACC) 23-20 at Heinz Field Saturday and may have lost their starting quarterback in the process.


The game ended with Malik Cunningham being taken off the field on a cart after suffering an undisclosed injury on UofL's final offensive play. He gave a thumbs-up to his teammates as he was being wheeled off for further evaluation.


"That's the soldier mentality in him," running back Javian Hawkins said. "He gave it his all and he got twisted up. He put his thumb up to let us know he was good."


However, Cunningham's availability for the Cards' next game on Oct. 9 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, following a bye week, is far from certain. UofL coach Scott Satterfield declined to speculate on the extent of the injury, which occurred on a fourth-down play as Cunningham desperately tried to get rid of the ball while he was going down.


"He kind of stepped up on that play," Satterfield said. "They had some pass rushers there and he was trying to make a throw and it looked like he got his feet kind of caught up underneath a couple of his defenders and got twisted a little bit when he threw the football. The positive thing is he was moving everything when he was on the ground, had feeling. I have not gotten an update, so anything else would be speculation. I do know he was moving everything and had feeling, so that's always a positive."


Cunningham, who came into the game directing a UofL offense that was averaging over 500 yards per game, was harassed all afternoon by an aggressive and athletic Pitt defense that overwhelmed the Cards' offensive line.


Cunningham was sacked seven times, pressured relentlessly, and threw for only 107 yards -- easily a career low as a starter -- with three interceptions. In all, Pitt racked up 11 tackles for loss.


Louisville managed just 223 yards of total offense, its lowest since being held to 217 against Boston College on Oct. 13, 2018. The previous low for UofL under Satterfield was 263 yards last season in a 45-10 loss to Clemson. The cards also converted just 1-of-11 third downs, their worst since identical numbers vs. Florida State in 2014.


"First of all give Pitt a lot of credit, man," Satterfield said. "That defense looked outstanding today. I think that's the one thing that stood out to me was that we really couldn't do much with that defensive front. We've played some good defensive lines this year, but they were different.


"They played fast, physical. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has that defense rolling like he wants it. They've got a bunch of players that have been here a long time. They have good length, good speed, they play hard, all the things you want in a defense. They kept the pressure on us all afternoon. We didn't find ways to run the ball, then in passing situations they did a great job of pinning their ears back and getting to the passer.


"The one thing we've been able to do since we've been here is hit the big shots down the field, and we had them called today. We just didn't connect for whatever reason. We either overthrew, underthrew, got pass interference. We want to connect on those for touchdowns."


Pitt held UofL to 116 yards rushing, with one play -- Hawkins' 75-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter -- accounting for most of that. Hawkins, second in the ACC with 117.5 yards per game, netted a mere three yards on 12 other carries.


"We had the one 75-yard run where we blocked it up really nice and Hawkins broke it off," Satterfield said. "But outside of that, there really weren't a lot of positive runs, which we hang our hat on. We could just not get that going at all today and that's why we had so many long yardage scenarios on third down, and it's hard to pick up third and long when they have the kind of pass rushers they have on the edge."


With the Cards' offense struggling, its defense -- still smarting from its poor performance in a 47-34 loss to Miami the previous week -- kept them in the game by forcing Pitt into three field goals despite giving up 376 yards.


Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns and Alex Kessman, who had missed three field goals a week earlier against Syracuse, hit kicks of 45, 41, and 34 yards. The Panthers' decisive points came on Kessman's 42-yarder with 8:25 remaining for a 23-17 lead.


Pitt scored the first 13 points, then UofL retaliated with 17 in a row, but couldn't mount a sustained attack the rest of the way. Following a punt, the Cards took over on their own 17-yard line with 2:27 remaining and two timeouts, but the ill-fated possession ended with Cunningham's injury.


"We get the ball back with 2 1/2 minutes left to go win the game and just didn't get it done," Satterfield said. "Our defense played better today, kept us in the game, held them to field goals, and if we're holding teams to field goals then we've got a great opportunity to win the game.


"Just a tough afternoon, didn't get it done there at the end. Got to do a lot better, obviously. We're dinged up some with two physical contests in a row and trying to get these guys healed up with our bye week before we head down to Atlanta."

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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