Rivalry week is upon us and after all of us have eaten ourselves into a food coma it’s time to pay all attention to the Governor’s Cup series. For the first time in the history of the series, Kentucky will enter this matchup ranked while Louisville is having their worst season since Ron Cooper’s last year in 1997.
For the first time since this series was moved to Thanksgiving Saturday, the Cards and the Cats will be playing under the lights and odds are that it will be a very Big Blue friendly crowd in attendance at the artist formerly known as Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
With a Citrus Bowl bid awaiting them, Kentucky will look to end a very good season on a very high note.
Nuts and Bolts
Well, that did not worked out like they planned it.
When Charlie Strong left Louisville for Texas, the Cards found themselves in a tricky spot. Louisville had a roster loaded with NFL talent on defense, but they had some major offensive questions going into their first season in the ACC. The next move was going to be viewed as one critical to the program’s success. Tom Jurich knew he couldn’t mess it up so he went back to a familiar face.
After a quick reclamation project at WKU where Bobby Petrino took over a talented roster left by Willie Taggart, Tom Jurich hired the former Louisville and Arkansas coach who went 8-4 in his only season in the Sun Belt. After multiple PR moves, the former hothead offensive genius was now being sold as a changed man.
After a defense filled with Charlie Strong’s players led Louisville to nine wins in year one, a guy by the name of Lamar Jackson took over. The South Florida native led Louisville to 25 wins the next three seasons that included a Heisman Trophy and a 9-1 start in 2016.
With the departure of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in 2016 followed by Lamar Jackson in 2017 the program became to crumble. In the first time he stayed the same place longer than four years, Bobby Petrino’s football team fell apart and after a 2-8 start athletic director Vince Tyra believed it was time to go in another direction. Now they are on Jeff Brohm watch in the Derby City.
This will only be the fourth year in the last two decades where Louisville didn’t make the postseason. The Cardinals quickly built a successful football program that was in the national title race in 2006 and 2016. UofL has built a recruiting pipeline in South Florida and have had an administration that has always provided facility upgrades when needed. This fast rise allowed Louisville to quickly climb from the Conference USA to the Big East. Not long after that, conference expansion opened a slot in the ACC and Louisville jumped at the opportunity.
It’s a new day, however, at university with a completely new administration. Tom Jurich, Rick Pitino, and Bobby Petrino are all now gone as the school and fan base are ready for a fresh start. However, for the football program, that can’t happen until the game is over on Saturday.
Tomorrow will the 31st meeting in the rivalry with the series tied at 15. Kentucky has never trailed in the overall series despite Louisville currently being on a 15-9 run. Since the game moved to Thanksgiving Saturday, the winning team has scored at least 38 points in each game.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is currently a 16.5 point favorite with a total of 52.5. That’s a projected final score of 34.5-18. Kentucky is 4-7 against the spread this season and is currently on a 1-12 run as a favorite since 2016. Meanwhile, Louisville is 1-10 against the spread in 2018 with the over hitting is six of the last seven games.
On the season, Louisville is putting up 20.6 points per game and 5.2 yards per play. Overall, the Cardinals rank 120th in scoring offense and 103rd in yards per play. It’s been a very long year.
In the first game after his dismissal, wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway took control of the play-calling and the offense continued to struggle. Against NC State, Louisville only put up 10 points but their 6.5 yards per play average was the second highest of the regular season. Under Galloway, the ground game produced their best effort of the season.
Under the adjusted staff, Malik Cunningham received the start and the Cards got the quarterback run game going early and often.
The redshirt freshman from Alabama is Louisville’s leading rusher on the team and he’s averaging over six yards per carry on non-sack carries. The young quarterback is a quick and shifty athlete who can be very effective in the run game. If he makes the right decision on option reads the Cardinals can be a good rushing offense. The problem is what he brings in the passing game.
The young quarterback is very limited in the passing department and that shows with the offense’s play-calling. Cunningham is completing just under 60% of his attempts and is putting up under seven yards per pass. He doesn’t have the arm to stretch the field and that is why Jawon Pass has been the primary quarterback all season long.
The redshirt sophomore from Georgia was a blue-chip recruit and a huge recruiting win for Bobby Petrino’s staff. After playing well in a backup role last season, he has been a huge disappointment for Louisville this season.
The 6-foot-4, 231-pound pocket passer has had significant accuracy and decision making issues all season. The big righty has tossed 12 interceptions, is averaging under seven yards per attempt, and is hitting passes at just a 54% completion rate. Only twice this season has Pass averaged over seven yards per attempt. His inconsistency and lack of progression has been a big reason why the offense is having its struggles.
Entering the season, Louisville had one of the best returning wideout units in the country. Seth Dawkins, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Jaylen Smith all had over 40 receptions, 600 yards, and 20 combined touchdowns with Lamar Jackson tossing them the rock.
This year, no one in the group has over 35 receptions.
A lot of the lack of production from the receivers has been quarterback plagued, but drops and consistently getting open has been an issue for this unit. None of Louisville’s top five pass catchers has a catch rate better than 60% and that screams inefficiency.
In the trenches may be where Louisville is the weakest. The Cardinals have included multiple rotations along the front including some walk-ons. Overall, this group does not create running room on the ground and UofL’s sack rate of 9.8% ranks 120th in the FBS. If you can’t block you can’t do much else on offense.
In a surprising move, Peter Sirmon left Louisville after one season to become a position coach on Justin Wilcox’s defensive staff at California. For the third time in three years, Bobby Petrino would have a new defensive coordinator. This time, for some unknown reason, Louisville would roll with Brian VanGorder.
The former Georgia Southern head coach served as a defensive coordinator at both Auburn and Notre Dame and in each spot he had very disappointing results. His one year at Louisville has been very, very, very bad.
The Cardinals are allowing 43 points per game and 6.7 yards per play. These rank 128th and 121st in the FBS. They are atrocious.
UofL’s defense has given up over 50 points six times this season and four games in a row. No FBS team has scored less than 27 points against this defense and this group ranks near the bottom of the FBS in nearly every statistical category.
When looking at what has gone wrong for Louisville you have to start in the trenches. Early in the season, Louisville lost their best individual talent in defensive end Jon Greenard early in this season and his departure has been sorely missed.
Despite the emergence of Amonte Caban and Tabarius Peterson at end (a combined 11 tackles for loss), Louisville is getting very little play from defensive tackle and they’ve consistently been pushed around. In the Football Outsiders’ metric adjusted line yards per carry, it measures the amount of yards your defensive line gives up on each carry. Currently, Louisville ranks 127th at 3.01 per attempt. Everyone has been able to run the football on them.
The defensive line has been bad, but even the linebackers own a lot of responsibility for opponents rushing for over 270 yards per outing. Sophomores C.J. Avery and Dorian Etheridge have both flashed signs of potential but each has had trouble staying discipline in run fits and producing disruptive plays.
In the secondary, safety Dee Smith leads the team in tackles and Khane Pass, Jawon’s older brother, has had some good moments. But on the outside, Louisville brought in two Power Five transfers at corner who came from Ohio State and Oklahoma. Rodjay Burns and P.J. Mbanasor had high expectations, but they have only combined to come away with two pass break-ups in 11 games. Louisville has gone to youth movement on the outside and the numbers show that. Opponents are completing 63.9% of their attempts, are averaging over eight yards per attempt, and have thrown 22 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
This defense does not do anything well.
Special Teams Breakdown
Both Louisville’s offense and defense is a mess, but junior kicker Blanton Creque has been very solid. The Kentucky native has hit 9-of-11 field goals but has missed three extra points on the season. In the return department, Rodjay Burns has been excellent when given opportunities to return punts.
However, the rest of Louisville’s special teams have not been great. Mason King has been inconsistent as a punter. Blanton Creque’s short leg has given opponents plenty of kick return opportunities. Freshman running back Hassan Hall has one kick return touchdown on the season.
Kentucky cannot give Louisville any cheap scores in special teams.
Keys to Victory
- Louisville went with a bit of an offensive identity change last week in the loss to NC State. With Malik Cunningham at quarterback the running game began to pick up some steam. Kentucky will see both quarterbacks on Saturday but expect Cunningham to get the start. After having some breakdowns in run defense the last three weeks, Kentucky must be solid in their run fits on Saturday night. The Wildcats must maintain gap integrity.
- Louisville has been bad at pretty much everything on defense, but the ground defense has been very bad all season. Expect Brian VanGorder to load the box, but after gaining some confidence last week, UK’s offensive line should be able to impose their will. Benny Snell chasing the program record will get all of the attention, but both A.J. Rose and Terry Wilson will have the opportunity to make explosive runs.
- In the rivalry game at home, you should always expect the home underdog to come out with a ton of emotion early. However, that can wear off quickly once the game settles in. UK needs to weather the early emotional storm and settle in. Do that and the power running game and swarming defense will take over.
Success in Louisville
Since the series returned in 1994, there have been 10 meetings at Cardinal Stadium with both teams owning five victories. Outside of the 2007 win, all of Kentucky’s best win in this series have occurred on the road.
There was Tim Couch lighting up the scoreboard in 1998, DeWayne Robertson and Jeremy Caudill knocking the crap out of Dave Ragone in 2002, Myron Pryor’s scoop-and-score in 2008, and Lamar fumbling and Stephen Johnson pulling off a fourth quarter comeback in 2016.
There have been a lot of great Big Blue Nation memories made on South Floyd Street and the chance will be there for another big one on Saturday night. Benny Snell has a chance to break a program record and UK could be shooting for that in the second half in the 31st meeting of the Governor’s Cup.