When Kentucky’s seniors graduated, the toughness of the defense may have gone with them. Throughout today’s game, Rick Minter’s troops showed a lack of aggression and technique required to slow down a potent Cardinal offense. Led by an outstanding performance by QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville set the tone from their opening possession. A 99-yard drive, highlighted by a 23-yard pass from Bridgewater to WR Damian Copeland, began what would be a long day for the Wildcats.
Kentucky struggled at almost every level of their defense. At defensive line, the presumed strength of the group heading into the season, there was a constant struggle to slow down the Cardinal running game. The linebacking corps had trouble finishing tackles and putting pressure on Bridgewater — who had seemingly all day to complete passes; and defensive backs couldn’t cover opposing receivers, allowing Bridgewater to find a rhythm that didn’t leave him until he was replaced by backup QB Will Stein late in the third quarter. Kentucky literally had no answer for anything that was thrown at them, it was a complete disaster in every phase.
“Defensively, we can’t have four drives over 76 yards,” Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. “We’re better than that.”
Unfair or not, a microscope is on the transition of Martavius Neloms from safety to cornerback. Neloms, who switched from safety to cornerback just weeks before today’s game, was targeted early and often by the Cardinal offense. He didn’t respond well, either. Neloms looked out of place on a number of plays, and on others, he simply didn’t have the awareness to defend the passes thrown in his direction.
Louisville’s rushing attack was just as effective as the pass. The Cardinals had no problem running at the Kentucky defense, finishing with 216 yards on 46 carries. In the last 16 Kentucky-Louisville match-ups, the team with the most rushing yards has won the game. With Kentucky only posting 89 yards on the ground, today was no different.
“We let the offense down,” defensive team captain Collins Ukwu remarked.”They’re a lot better offense than last year.”
If there was a bright spot today, it was Kentucky’s offense. The group looked completely different from the last time they took the field against Louisville. Although there was less points (17 last year) on the scoreboard, the offense looked more potent and complete than it did all of last season. A lot of it had to do with QB Maxwell Smith’s play. Smith’s 35 of 50, 276 yards, and two touchdown performance may have been the best of his young career.
For the Wildcats to reach their goal of a bowl game, there has to be an improvement on the defensive side on the ball going forward. In the second year of a new scheme, the Wildcats expected to be more experienced with their responsibilities, allowing Minter to throw more looks at opposing offenses. The turnover from one year to the next was seems like it was understated the entire off season, leaving Kentucky longing for their senior leadership from last year’s defense. After such a tough start, Minter will have to fix the defensive problems on the fly if the Wildcats plan to be competitive for the rest of season.