Why Louisville football's defense can breathe a sigh of relief before home opener

ORLANDO — Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown left PBC Mortgage Stadium on Friday night with a game ball and a smile.

Louisville football running back Tiyon Evans did, too.

A mixture of humble pie and camaraderie gave the Cardinals the ability to finish out a close 20-14 game over UCF following a surprising 31-7 defeat to Syracuse in the season opener.

“We knew it was gonna be a dogfight,” said Evans, who scored the team’s first points in both games. “We had that mindset versus last week, we came in thinking we was gonna beat these guys. So, it kind of humbled us and we just came out this week to fight.”

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Offensively, the Cardinals weren’t perfect but mixed in more of quarterback Malik Cunningham’s mobility, which opened up opportunities for Evans, who totaled 75 yards on 19 carries, as well as U of L’s passing game. Five different receivers had at least 20 yards, led by Tyler Hudson for a second week. The Central Arkansas transfer recorded three catches on five targets for 67 yards.

The defense was the star of the show, however, dealing UCF its third home loss in the last six seasons and first since 2020. The group did it without its top offseason transfer, nose tackle Jermayne Lole, who was ruled out for the season with an elbow injury.

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“I think the guys just took it upon themselves and (said), 'Hey, man, we got to step up, one of my brothers are down.' They played their butt off,” Brown said. "I think the other thing is one of our backup defensive ends, he lost his dad yesterday and he had to fly home this morning, so I think the guys are playing for him, and as well. Collectively, the guys came out and gave it everything they had.”

Brown did not provide the player's name that missed Friday's game.

The defense showed growth one week after Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader carved the Cardinals up with 95 rushing yards (and 237 yards and two TDs through the air). UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who was deemed a better and faster runner than Shrader, dashed for more than 100 yards by halftime. But Louisville's defense held Plumlee and Co. to 96 yards of total offense in the second half after giving up 241 yards in the first, which included holding the Knights to 2.5 yards per carry.

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When Plumlee wasn't running, the Cardinals did a better job bringing him down than they did Shrader a week ago in Syracuse. Ashton Gillotte was one of a few bright spots in the Week 1 loss with two sacks. U of L generated better pressure Friday night, with YaYa Diaby recording 1 1/2 sacks for a team that finished with four on the night. Plumlee struggled going to the air, finishing 16 of 34 with 131 yards, no touchdowns and a pick.

The effort allowed the Louisville offense to get back in the game with a pair of James Turner field goals and Cunningham's 43-yard go-ahead touchdown run. Cunningham finished 14 of 29 for 195 yards in the air while rushing 17 times for 127 yards and a score.

Then when the game was on the line in the final six minutes, the defense showed this time it could hold onto a one-score lead for good. Jarvis Brownlee intercepted a fourth-down pass in the back of the end zone to end one UCF scoring threat. Then Plumlee threw four straight incompletions — a fifth would-be interception was called back due to a U of L offsides penalty — when the Knights got the ball back with 1:41 to play to turn the ball over on downs. U of L kneeled out the clock after that.

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A team that preached winning the close games all offseason is now 1-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

“I think one thing (head coach Scott) Satterfield has done is create situations like that," Brown said, “fourth-down scenarios or two-minutes scenarios — all spring ball, all of fall camp. It gives those guys confidence to go out there and execute, and so I was just so happy that we were able to go out there and do it because they've been putting those situations already.”

Having completed the two-games-in-six-days road tour to open the season, U of L can breathe a sigh of relief. It returns home for the first time this season and can try to build off an uneven win that very nearly could've turned into an 0-2 start to the season.

Their opponent is a Florida State team fresh off the bye week after surviving LSU on a missed extra point, 24-23, on Sept. 4 in New Orleans. Having dropped one Atlantic Coast Conference game already, the Cards' upcoming contest is of even more importance if they want to be seen among the top teams in the final year of the Atlantic Division.

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Being able to leave Orlando with a win helps in that effort.

“You think about if you go into the Florida State game, you're sitting there at 0-2, I mean, that's not going to be good at all,” Satterfield said. “But to have some confidence to know that, hey, we played well and the way we won it, and now we gotta go have a great week. The good thing is we got a normal week. Even though it's Friday night, we get a normal seven-day turnaround and not a short week. That's gonna be big for us as well. And, we get to stay at home. We get to play in Cardinal Stadium. So that's another huge, huge thing for us.”

Reach Louisville football, women's basketball and baseball beat writer Alexis Cubit at acubit@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter at @Alexis_Cubit.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville football: Defense steps up in second half against UCF