LOUISVILLE — It was a celebration of Senior Day, but fans in drizzly Cardinal Stadium saw an encouraging preview of what the future could look like for Louisville's football program as youngsters stole the show in a wild and crazy 56-34 victory over Syracuse.
The win extended the Cardinals' (7-4, 5-3) remarkable turnaround in coach Scott Satterfield's first season and gave them momentum going into next Saturday's showdown with Kentucky (6-5) at Kroger Field, with wins in three of their last four games boosting their chances for a Tier One bowl.
Take a bow Javian Hawkins, Micale Cunningham and Tutu Atwell.
Cunningham, a redshirt sophomore, accounted for six touchdowns. He threw for a career-best five touchdowns, completing 11-of-20 passes for 238 yards, averaging more than 20 yards per completion. He also gained 60 yards rushing and scored a touchdown. He threw his NCAA-leading sixth TD pass of more than 70 yards, a 90-yarder to Atwell late in the second quarter.
Atwell, a diminutive sophomore (5-feet-9), also had a career day, racking up 152 yards and two touchdowns on just five receptions.
Redshirt freshman Hawkins, already a 1,000-yard rusher, added to his impressive resume' on a record day. He gained a career-high 223 yards to become the first UofL rookie to have six 100-yard rushing performances in a season while setting the school freshman rushing record with 1,276 yards. And he still has two games remaining.
In all, Louisville's explosive, big-play offense produced 608 total yards — 370 on the ground — averaged nearly 10 yards per play and converted 8-of-11 third downs.
"Really proud of the seniors, what they accomplished this year," UofL coach Scott Satterfield said after emerging from a raucous locker room celebration. "I told them in the locker room, what I saw in their faces in December when I first got here and to see the joy in their faces now is an incredible transformation. I'm really proud of the seniors to go out like this, winners with one of the greatest turnarounds in NCAA history."
Although UofL never trailed and never allowed Syracuse (4-7, 1-6) to get closer than two touchdowns after building a 28-10 lead late in the first half, the game wasn't without its drama and anxious moments for Satterfield, thanks mostly to lapses by his defense.
The teams combined for 38 points in the third quarter, but every time UofL's defense faltered, the offense answered. Syracuse wound up with 510 yards and some big plays of its own.
"There were a lot of fireworks," Satterfield said. "They kept scoring and we kept coming back. We're not as solid as we need to be defensively and I think we all know that. But our offense kept us in it by scoring all those points. We had a ton of playmakers tonight."
And don't forget the offensive line, sparked on this night by hulking senior tackle Tyler Haycraft, a former walk-on from St. Xavier High School who earned a scholarship after spring practice.
"Those guys up front were feeling it tonight," Sattefield said. "They felt like they could take them off the ball and make some holes to run the football."
The final nerve-wracking moment for the Cards came while they were leading 49-34 but surrendered 81 yards to Syracuse freshman Jawhar Jordan on a screen pass that should have been stopped for no gain. By the time Marlon Character ran Jordan out of bounds, he was at the 3-yard line and the visitors were pumped .
A touchdown would have pulled the Orange to within a touchdown and two-point conversion with plenty of time remaining. But Syracuse, with one of the worst red zone offenses in the country, was true to form and self-destructed with two false starts and a holding penalty.
UofL took over on the six-yard line with 8:24 remaining and drove 94 yards to put the game out of reach, with Cunningham throwing a 14-yard TD pass to Atwell.
"That was huge to be able to grind it out and melt the clock down with our running game," Satterfield said.
Now it's on to Lexington with a chance to avenge a double-digit defeat from last season for the sixth time this season.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.