The 2022 College Football is just two weeks in; however, we have records being broken already.
Louisville starting quarterback, Malik Cunningham, broke the mark for the most consecutive starts by a Cardinals signal caller with the first snap of the game. This took him to 37 games started, and there is very little chance of him slowing down.
The Louisville senior had an impressive year in 2021, finishing fifth in the ACC for rushing yards, whilst becoming the second quarterback to rush for over 1000 yards in school history. This coincided with a career-best 2841 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns to make for a hugely productive year. However, there were plenty of pundits queuing up to say that Cunningham needed to focus more on his passing game in 2022 to further improve his game.
The 2022 season didn’t get off to the best of starts for Cunningham. Going up against a tough Syracuse team was always going to be a hard way to start the season. This was evident as he struggled to put up decent numbers and was intercepted twice, whilst also being constrained on the ground. So, what went wrong for a player that had such a productive 2021 season?
First and foremost, the Cardinals came up against a resolute Syracuse defence. After Braden Smith’s big 45-yard throw to Tyler Hudson to the five-yard line, Cunningham was given the task of converting for the touchdown and bringing the game much closer. However, he was met by at least four defenders at the two-yard line on third and goal, before falling to the same result on fourth down.
Although this is just an isolated example, the Syracuse defence remained the same all game. They were quick to the snap and hunted him down in numbers to stop the space being there for him to run into. This set the scene, and ultimately Cunningham had just 34 yards from 13 attempts, an average of just 2.6 yards a carry. When you compare that to his average of 6.0 yards a carry in 2021, and average of 79.3 yards a game, this was significantly worse, and pinpointed to an important game-plan by Syracuse to limit his running attempts.
This also was the factor in the passing game as well. Cunningham faced the blitz a lot, and his offensive line struggled to deal with the force of the Syracuse defence. Although he was only sacked three times, he was heavily under pressure to make something happen with the ball. He threw two interceptions but was consistent with his throwing. The only problem was he was restricted to 9.5 yards a completion, which is significantly lower than his 2021 total (14.1). Without the freedom of making things happen down the field regularly, Louisville kept the ball less than normal and couldn’t pick up more points.
Fast-forward a week and Cunningham came up against a UCF side who had an impressive 56-10 Week 1 victory over SC State.
The first real difference between the two games was the veteran QB’s reaction to the defenders charging at him. There were some quick releases to make plays, but this was helped more by receivers being in open areas to receive the passes. On the ground, he was gifted more space by blockers creating a clear path. This allowed him to use his legs a bit more and make big plays down the field.
Cunningham’s passing seemed more direct, and he was targeting both sides of the field. This helped him pick up 8–10 yard gains in order to work first downs, but also allowed him to use the space freed up by receivers in order to pick up yards on the ground. His longest pass was less than the week before, but he was hitting the key passes more regularly and was significantly better rushing.
The game saw him surpass 100 yards for the first time this season, with a big 43-yard touchdown as his longest attempt. Cardinals fans will be delighted but this glazes over the fact his passing wasn’t anywhere near as good as it has been.
A pass completion rate of 48.3% was lightyears away from his career average of 62%, despite picking up 201 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception, but this alludes to the earlier point of improving his passing game.
Cunningham is a class athlete. He is quick, agile and can make plays happen, but the downside seems to be the inconsistency with his passing game. We all know that he can pick up yards on the ground and churn out first downs with his quick feet and ability to pick out spaces, but how will he improve as a quarterback and be drafted in the higher rounds if he can’t be consistent through the air?
The UCF game was one where he could have made headways in both parts of his game. But we are going back to the same problem of whether he is a better quarterback or a better rusher. The Syracuse game showcased him as a consistent passer, but he didn’t seem the usual Cunningham because of his lack of yardage on the ground. The UCF game was the complete opposite. Although he made headway in terms of picking up more yards per completion, his accuracy was far less, and there seemed more emphasis on improving his running game.
Malik Cunningham is a wonderful player to watch. A solid quarterback with the ability to make a real difference on the ground, but it comes back to the same thing: Can he do both?
From watching his games, I think he could be a very good quarterback, with the potential of getting himself out of trouble and churning out yards and first downs when required, but it will need him to sacrifice part of his running game for him to do so.
There’s a long way to go in 2022, but if the Louisville star continues the way he started this year there could be high levels of inconsistency due to that balance not always being there. However, he will always have the capability of picking up 100 yards a game on the ground, whether his passing game can be that consistent as well remains to be seen.
By Jake Tweedie – @ACCUKAnalysis1