Here we go, boys and girls. The one we have waited for lo these many weeks is at hand. Saturday night at 7:35 p.m., the Cats and Cards will kick off the latest addition of the state’s greatest active feud. Here’s all you need to know to predict the outcome, win friends and influence people.
Remember the Alamo
With the recent success of the Kentucky football program, it is easy to gloss over painful memories of U.K. debacles past. In doing so, Kentucky fans, like fans of every other team in America, often delude themselves with an idealistic view of their team. In order to avoid this phenomenon and look at the upcoming game without blinders, we need to first relive last year’s beat down.
LOUISVILLE 59, KENTUCKY 28
LOUISVILLE 631 TOTAL YARDS, KENTUCKY 260 TOTAL YARDS
LOUISVILLE 363 RUSHING YARDS, KENTUCKY 22 RUSHING YARDS
The numbers are unavoidable. In this game, just over one year ago, Kentucky was totally and completely dismantled by a vastly superior football team. This is the beginning point. Any pronouncement of Kentucky’s current superiority must show how the Cats have overcome the obvious disparity between the programs in the past year. Have they?
Kentucky and Louisville both sport dynamic, explosive offenses. Louisville ranks 1st nationally in both scoring offense (65.5 points per game) and total offense (692 yards per game). Kentucky ranks 7th (53 points per game) and 8th (526 yards per game) nationally in those categories. Both teams average close to a first down on every snap with Louisville at almost 9 yards per play and Kentucky at almost 8. With these obscene numbers, and with both programs boasting Heisman candidate quarterbacks, it goes without saying that both teams excel in the passing game. However, neither program’s offenses are exactly Mumme-esque. Instead, at least through two games, the Cats and Cards have both run more than twice as often as they have thrown, and both rank in the Top 10 nationally in rushing offense. Louisville’s Anthony Allen averages 165.5 yards per game through 2 games. Rafael Little, while averaging only 118.5 yards per game, carries a robust 9.48 yard per carry average. In short, both teams have extremely balanced offenses capable of lighting up scoreboards in any stadium in the country, but not much separates the two at this point.
And now for something completely different. While the Cats and Cards are among the elite of the college football universe while in possession of the ball, they both sit somewhere just south of mediocre when their opponents have it. Surprisingly, U.K. is considerably ahead of the Cards on paper at this point of the season. While both have been sieve-like against the run, the Cats are a nearly respectable 47th nationally in total defense while the Cards rank 86th. More significantly, Kentucky gives up approximately 11 fewer points per game than the Cards, points being relatively significant in the outcome of football games. Overall, neither team appears to possess the second coming of the Steel Curtain, but to this point, Kentucky’s D appears to be the lesser of two evils. This is a significant shift from last season, when Louisville’s attacking defense was one of the better defenses nationally by the numbers, while Kentucky was one of the worst.
Call it poor coaching. Call it lack of discipline. Call it karma. Whatever you call it, the refs appear more than willing to call it on the Cards, one of the most penalized teams in America at 90.5 penalty yards per game. For comparison’s sake, Kentucky averages 50 yards in penalties per game.
U.K.’s first two opponents: 2-0 in their other games. U of L’s first two opponents: 0-2 in their other games.
Fun fact for fans of the Cardinal logo: Cardinals do not have teeth.
For those who felt U.K. could not keep up their habit of forcing turnovers from last season, Kentucky is currently tied for 11th nationally in turnover margin. Coincidentally, Louisville is one of several teams tied with the Cats.
U.K.’s last win against a Top 20 team was over 17th-ranked U of L in 2002. U.K.’s last win against a Top 10 team was against 4th ranked Penn State in 1977. Louisville is currently ranked 9th in both polls.
Kentucky’s defense will be severely hampered with Ricky Lumpkin out and Myron Pryor hobbled, making the defensive tackle position frighteningly thin. Career reserve Ventrell Jenkins will get the start for Pryor, and true freshman Shane McCord will get significant run. Louisville continues to love to run the ball with power sets under Kragthorpe, and if Kentucky’s defensive line cannot hold up, the Cats can’t win. Similarly, Kentucky must pressure Brohm in passing situations without continually relying on blitzes. Brohm has seemingly always had the luxury of keeping his uniform relatively clean from his days at Trinity to the present, but it seems he can be rattled when hit consistently. (See the second half of the 2006 Rutgers game for an example.) Fortunately, Kentucky’s defensive ends, Jarmon, Lewis and Paris, have been a pleasant surprise to this point. They will have to get pressure to keep Brohm from dissecting the Cats from the pocket.
The linebackers have a tall order as well in defending the run while also covering Louisville’s frequently used tight ends. (Gary Barnidge, for instance, has 8 catches for 172 yards and 4 touchdowns on the season.) Kentucky’s middle backers, who don’t excel in coverage, must find a way to close down the middle of the field. Then there is the secondary, which has the small task of covering super-sized athletic freak Mario Urruttia and the extremely talented Harry Douglas.
Before any of this depresses you, remember that U of L has to contend with Kentucky’s offense as well. I fully expect to see Joker Phillips attempt to run the ball at the Cards, who are somewhat undersized upfront, until Louisville proves that they can better their season average of surrendering 6.1 yards per rush. One interesting question will be to see if Kentucky can run the ball outside on the Cards. Against Eastern and Kent State, Kentucky favored running the ball around the end to utilize the quickness of Little, Dixon and Smith, as well as the mobility of the offensive line. Louisville, however, has linebackers with tremendous speed, but who are somewhat undersized. Kentucky may be better served to power the ball off guard, at least until Louisville is able to stop it. In doing so, Kentucky can milk the clock, keep Brohm and company off of the field, and open up the possibilities of long strikes to Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons and Steve Johnson. All should have opportunities to get open against a relatively untested secondary, particularly since Louisville has not gotten much pressure on the quarterback thus far this season. (One sack through two games.)
In the end, I simply think it is time. Kentucky has incredible leadership on this team. Guys like Woodson, Tamme, Little, Woodyard and McClinton have pulled this program out of the depths of losing and probation, and turned it into a respectable one by the sheer force of their will and determination. Winning breeds winning, and this team has now won seven of the last eight times it has taken the field. I truly believe Kentucky is ready to shift the balance of power in the state, and that it will begin this process on Saturday. My pick: Woodson to Tamme, a Kentucky connection, for the game winning score. Kentucky 38, Louisville 35.