The University of Louisville football team is looking to spark its offense heading into Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference opener versus Virginia.
UofL head coach Bobby Petrino announced that quarterback Malik Cunningham will get his first start as the Cardinals look to get a leg up on the ACC race with a key league battle against the Cavaliers, who are riding high after a 45-31 win over Ohio last Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Malik's (Cunningham) done a nice job," Petrino said at his Monday press conference. "He's come in and given us energy, given us a lot of fire. I did like the way we ran the ball in the second half. That's happened the last two games where we've been able to really run the football well, handing it to a running back, and that's something that we really wanted to work on in our last two games."
The Montgomery, Alabama, native ignited the offense last Saturday in the 20-17 come-from-behind win over Western Kentucky at Cardinal Stadium. Entering the game early in the first half, Cunningham rushed for 129 yards – only the fourth quarterback in school history to rush for 100 yards – and threw for 88 yards to lead the Cardinals to their second-consecutive win.
"He's had 12 possessions that he started and scored eight times in those 12 possessions," Petrino said of Cunningham's last two games. "He gives us energy. He gets the guys around him to play hard."
The Cardinals received another jolt to the offense in the form of redshirt sophomore Dae Williams, who added 58 yards and a pair of one-yard touchdowns. He scored on a fourth-and-1 from the goal line to trim WKU's lead to 14-13 and put the Cardinals ahead for good with a short score at the 5:01 mark of the fourth quarter.
"I liked the way Dae Williams ran the ball. He ran with power, he pressed the holes, made the cutbacks, got the ball in the end zone, and did a nice job there," Petrino said. "He played really well in there. I think with our big tackles on the edge, that helps us a lot. I think that we'll do a good job of continuing to get better in running the football. Dae Williams took a huge step forward in the second half to carry the ball the way he did."
The Cardinals, who finished third nationally in offense a year ago, understand the need get on track offensively if they hope to get off to a fast start in the conference race.
"We've got to play better football," Petrino said." That's the bottom line is we've got to play better football. We've got to take it from the practice field on to the game field with the right timing and the right precision in the passing game and put it all together – put it all together with the protection and the quarterback's vision and timing and the receivers catching the ball and running after the catch.
In opening up league play this weekend, the Cardinals face a challenge against a much-improved Virginia team under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers have won two of their first three games and are allowing 21.3 points per game.
"Defensively, they still have the same unique style where they play a three-down front and a four-down front," Petrino said. "They've got a lot of guys over there that we've played against before; an outside linebacker who's a really good player, an inside linebacker who started for a couple years against us, the same corner that we played against last year, so we're familiar with a lot of them.
"They always do a good job in their defensive package, but I think it's something that we have to go execute and play well."
The Massey Ratings predict a 30-26 Louisville victory.