With Hawkins gone, UofL's 3-man rotation getting job done

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- It's a safe bet that when Javian Hawkins opted out of what remained of Louisville's college football season that most observers expected a sharp dropoff in the Cardinals' run production.

After all, Hawkins led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing at the time and was closing in on his second consecutive 1,000-yard season with 822 yards. He was a threat to break a long-gainer any time he touched the ball.

But in the two games since Hawkins departed, UofL's running attack hasn't suffered significantly, surprisingly enough, as coach Scott Satterfield has pivoted to rely on a three-man rotation. And it's an approach he sees no reason to change as the Cards (3-6, 2-6 ACC) meet Boston College (5-4, 4-4) Saturday in Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts (4 p.m., ESPN).

The trio of Maurice Burkley, Jalen Mitchell and Hassan Hall has not only held its own, but Louisville's rushing average and total offense in the last two games have actually risen compared to the seven previous games with Hawkins in the backfield.

"The run game from those guys has been very big," said quarterback Malik Cunningham, who has also played a major role in the run production. "It's good to see those guys stepping up and running the ball so well when they got the chance."

Through seven games, the Cards were averaging 185.1 yards per game on the ground -- 117.4 provided by Hawkins -- and 453.3 yards total offense. In a loss to Virginia Tech (42-35) and a win over Syracuse (30-0), they have compiled an average of 225.4 yards rushing and 445.5 yards total. Burkley, Hall and Mitchell have exceeded Hawkins' average slightly, at 122.0.

Two of those three had only minor roles before Hawkins left. Burkley, a former walk-on, had carried only 11 times for 80 yards, while true redshirt freshman Mitchell had only four attempts for 13 yards. Hall, a junior who was Hawkins' backup when he needed a break, had gained 144 yards on 26 carries before missing three games due to an injury and a death in the family. He came into the season with 804 career yards.

Burkley has started both of the games in Hawkins' absence, but the carries were evenly divided against Syracuse, with 11 for Mitchell (46 yards), 10 for Burkley (56 yards) and nine for Hall (22 yards).

All are likely to see action in a similarly equal way against BC as UofL tries to put together back-to-back wins for first time this season and snap a five-game road losing streak dating back to last year's 45-13 thrashing at Kentucky.

Hall is probably the best big-play back of the three, while Burkley is a bruiser with the strength to break tackles and Mitchell has both speed and size. All are capable blockers in the passing game and can catch passes out of the backfield.

"They all have different strengths in how they go about things," Satterfield said. "It's situational, a bit. With all those guys, it does give you something that defenses have to work on that's a little bit different with each back. And it's an advantage having three backs in the sense that they can stay fresh."

Whoever is in the backfield Saturday afternoon will have to contend with a Boston College defense that is second nationally in takeaways with 17 -- 10 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions. That's not a good sign for a UofL offense that has lost 18 turnovers, 123rd of 126 FBS teams.

"When you look at Boston College on film what you see is guys all around the football," UofL offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford said. "They're relentless in their pursuit and trying to strip the ball."

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles haven't been as impressive. They have averaged just 366.3 yards per game total offense, 89th nationally, including only 104.2 yards rushing (116th).

Before this season, BC was known as a power running team. But now the Eagles rely more on a dangerous passing attack under 6-5 redshirt sophomore Phil Jurkovec, who has completed 60 percent of his throws for 2,355 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. Four receivers have totaled 369 yards or more and five are averaging 11 yards or more per catch, led by 5-11 sophomore Zay Flowers (625 yards/15.2 avg./7 TDS) and 6-5 redshirt junior tight end Hunter Long (560/11.9/4 TDs).

"Jurkovec knows where his receivers are and he's throwing the ball on time," UofL defensive coordinator Bryan Brown said. "The one thing he does is when he's outside the pocket he's playing backyard football, pointing to guys where to go and hitting them. So we've got to do a great job of keeping him in the pocket and making him feel uncomfortable, then we'll see where we are at the end of the day."

Where the Cardinals have been at the end of the day in two of the last three games against BC is on the short end of the score. And last year they needed a 41-yard field goal by Blanton Creque with 62 seconds remaining to escape with a 41-39 victory in Cardinal Stadium.



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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