After collecting consecutive wins for the first time since September, Kentucky will be returning to action for the 12th time this season. However, this isn’t your typical college football Saturday. Thanksgiving weekend means that it is rivalry week for everyone and Louisville will be rolling into town looking to take back the Governor’s Cup.
Under a new head coach, UofL has been one of the surprise stories of the college football season and they are entering this weekend with seven wins and a winning record in ACC play. The Cardinals are very explosive on offense and use a unique scheme on defense that is built on quickness. With more rain in the forecast, Kentucky will look to continue its good play in ugly conditions.
I do not think you will have to worry about intensity being an issue on Saturday.
Nuts and Bolts
Scott Satterfield played for Appalachian State from 1991-1995 and started a bunch of games at quarterback for the Mountaineers. In 1998, he joined the full-time staff as a wide receivers coach. The alumnus would go on to be an assistant for 11 seasons.
After spending 15 years in Boone, North Carolina, Satterfield made quick pit stops at Toledo and FIU. He returned to App to call the plays and institute a spread offense in 2012. One season later, Jerry Moore retired and he was named the head coach.
After transitioning to full-time FBS membership, App State won three Sun Belt titles and recorded double-digit wins three times under Satterfield. He left the school with 51-24 record and headed to Louisville.
Following the most successful coach in program history is usually a very difficult thing, but Louisville was a totally different scenario. After going 41-9 with three top 20 finishes in his first four seasons, the sequel for Bobby Petrino did not go so well in the ACC. The offensive guru led the Cardinals to 34 wins and two top 25 finishes from 2014-2017, but the bottom fell out last year. With Lamar Jackson off to the NFL, the Cardinals were really bad on offense and awful on defense giving up at least 52 points in the six of the final seven games. Petrino was fired before Thanksgiving and it was time for athletic director Vince Tyra to make his second huge hire after pulling in Chris Mack to run the basketball program.
After going all in on Jeff Brohm, the Louisville hero decided to stay at Purdue and the search immediately turned to Satterfield. Following winning the Sun Belt championship, Satterfield headed straight to Louisville and quickly got things rolling. The Cards went 5-3 in ACC play with two upset wins over what could be a pair of nine-win teams. Behind an explosive offense, UofL has surprised a ton of people this fall.
This will be the 32nd meeting between the two Power Five programs in the Bluegrass State and the Wildcats own a slim 16-15 series lead. Since the series restarted in 1994, UofL is on 15-10 run. However, Louisville was 7-1 in games coached by Bobby Petrino while Kentucky is 6-0 in the games without him since 2002.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 3-point favorite with a total of 53.5. That’s a projected final score around 28-25. Kentucky is 7-3-1 against the spread while Louisville is 7-4. The over is 5-2 in UofL’s last seven games while the under is 6-2 in UK’s last eight games. Kentucky has not beaten Louisville in Lexington since 2009.
Scott Satterfield calls the plays for the offense and in his first year, UofL ranks 25th nationally in scoring offense and 11th in yards per play. This offense currently ranks 29th in SP+’s opponent adjusted rankings and it has easily been the best unit of Satterfield’s career. They are extremely balanced and are led by a big three that holds it down at each level.
Javian Hawkins was a low three-star prospect in the class of 2018 and after redshirting last season, he is putting up one of the best individual seasons in Louisville history. The tiny back (5-foot-9, 182 pounds) has rushed for 1,278 yards and is averaging 5.84 yards per carry. Hawkins has flashed some surprising durability in that small frame by recording at least 20 attempts in five of the last seven games. He ranks second nationally in rushes of 20-plus yard and 40-plus yards. The Titusville, Florida native is just 152 yards away from the program’s single-season running back rushing record in his first year playing.
On the outside, Tutu Atwell was another three-star commit in the class of 2018 from Florida who picked Louisville over the likes of Florida Atlantic and East Carolina. He was impressive last season as a true freshman (24 grabs, 16.9 yards per catch) but he has grown into one of the most explosive players in college football this season. The Miami native is also tiny (5-foot-9, 153 pounds) but he is averaging 18.81 yards per reception on 57 grabs and has six catches of 50-plus yards. Over 26 percent of Atwell’s grabs go for 20-plus yards. He is a walking highlight reel.
Most yards after the catch, FBS WRs:
1. DeVonta Smith, Bama: 703
2. Tutu Atwell, Louisville: 679
3. Brandon Aiyuk, Ariz St: 667
4. Devin Duvernay, Texas: 606
5. Deshaunte Jones, Iowa St: 570
6. Omar Bayless, Ark St: 548
7. Bryan Edwards, S Carolina: 540
— Cam Mellor (@PFF_Cam) November 24, 2019
On the line, Scott Satterfield brought Dwayne Ledford over from NC State and he is one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. He has done a really good job getting this group to gel and play well, but he inherited an absolute stud in Mekhi Becton. The 6-foot-7, 369-pound monster has started every game he’s played in during his college career and this will be his final year in college. UofL runs behind No. 73 quite often and T.J. Carter along with all the outside linebackers better be ready for a physical challenge.
Jawon Pass began the season as the starter, but after an injury the Cards have moved to redshirt sophomore Micale Cunningham. After platooning with true freshman Evan Conley for a few games, Cunningham became the starter and he is posting monster numbers (11.8 yards per attempt, 198.73 QB rating) on just 20 throws per game. Add that in with his dual-threat ability and he is a very dangerous player.
In nearly every statistical category, UofL ranks in the top 25. They’ve been efficient and explosive in both the run and the pass game. They finish drives in the red zone at a good clip, but they have one major weakness. The offense gives up a ton of negative plays. Opponents have been able to come up with a lot of tackles for loss and sacks. UK’s defensive line and linebackers must find a way to create some havoc after struggling with creating negative plays all season.
There’s no denying that the offense has exceeded expectations in year one, but the same thing cannot be said for the defense. In just his second season as a defensive play-caller, Bryan Brown did not inherit the same type of pieces that Satterfield did on offense. The results have been some ugly numbers.
The Cards give up 32.8 points per game and 6.05 yards per play. Both rank in the bottom of the FBS rankings. Against Power Five teams, Louisville has given up at least 35 points seven times and at least 45 points three times. After 11 games, there’s not much difference outside of effort from last year’s Brian VanGorder defense. In their hybrid 3-4 scheme, the Cards don’t have great size.
A lot of the personnel that Louisville has used this year as hamstrung them a little bit, but at their root they want this to be a small but quick defense. It’s a 3-4, but it’s really a 3-3-5 with a safety playing at Sam linebacker and three other traditional linebackers. There won’t be the hybrid outside linebackers/defensive ends like you will see Kentucky use. This year they are asking a former corner to play inside the box.
Rodjay Burns was a three-star recruit in the class of 2016 who graduated from Trinity High School out of Louisville and went to Ohio State. After one season in Columbus, the corner transferred home and was moved to safety. When the new staff came to town they converted him to this hybrid position and he is really producing.
The redshirt junior is second on the team in tackles, leads Louisville with 9.5 tackles for loss, and serves as the primary punt returner. He has done a lot for Louisville this season and will be key to them slowing down Kentucky’s runs when they get to the edge. If he gets blocked or misses tackles, it should mean some big runs for the home team’s ground attack.
Yes, UofL is small at linebacker, but they also aren’t big on the line. G.G. Robinson and Jared Goldwire both platoon at nose and neither gets up to 300 pounds. They have been very productive combining for 40 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. At the two end positions, neither Amonte Caban or Tabarius Peterson reaches 260 pounds. This is a small group that looks to use quickness and stunts to create negative plays. They take chances and that occasionally opens up some very big running lanes.
At inside linebacker, both C.J. Avery and Dorian Etheridge are talented players who have combined for 140 tackles. The two juniors will be the backbone of the defense next year and they’ll be busy trying to slow down UK’s ground game. Some inside linebackers have put up some huge tackle numbers against Kentucky this season and it will be essential for UK to create movement and get their offensive line to the second level to take care of these two backers.
Russ Yeast is Louisville’s starting strong safety and he has been ruled out for the game after leaving the Syracuse win with an unspecified injury. That is significant because he is a key cog in their run defense. Without him, Lexington Catholic alum and walk-on Jack Fagot will get a lot of playing time. Khane Pass has 70 tackles from his free safety spot and will be the last line of defense. At corner, sophomore Chandler Jones has been really good this season and the former high-three star recruit out of Miami could be a future star.
Louisville gives up a ton of big plays on the ground and opponents score touchdowns in the red zone at a very high rate. However, this scheme is very aggressive and that has helped them get off the field on third downs. If they stay with their identity, it could create a few negative plays and three-and-outs for Kentucky. However, there will be many chances for huge chunks of yardage and that’s where Kentucky has to make them pay.
Special Teams Breakdown
Blanton Creque has been at Louisville forever and he will finish his career third in career field goals made. However, he was lost to an ACL injury a few weeks ago and the placekicking is simply not the same. Ryan Chalifoux has missed two extra points and is 0 for 1 on field goal attempts. Keep that in mind because we are looking at another game with rain and wind in the forecast.
In the return game, backup running back Hassan Hall is very dangerous and has two kick return touchdowns in his career. He’s putting up 34.2 yards per return so Kentucky must be very careful in their kickoff strategy. If they are not kicking it deep, expect some pooch attempts.
— Louisville Football (@UofLFootball) October 13, 2019
Mason King is a very solid punter and is one of a handful of former walk-ons that start. He’s averaging over 42 yards per attempt and has done a great job limiting returns. New kickoff specialist James Turner doesn’t have a very big leg and has a touchback rate under 15 percent. Return chances will be there, but UofL’s kickoff defense has been really solid all season.
This is a very good special teams unit, but the loss of Creque looms large. Grant McKinniss and Max Duffy have been awesome all season and UK will need them to keep the ball out of the hands of UofL’s returners.
Keys To Victory
- Louisville is a one-possession underdog for the fifth time this season and in those games they are 2-2. In the two wins, Louisville won by 10 combined points and they benefitted from turnovers and special teams. In the road win at Wake Forest, a kickoff return touchdown on top of a long punt return and a plus-one turnover margin setup the win. At home against Virginia, Louisville was plus-two in the turnover margin and used a very short field to get one of the scores in the 28-21 win. In the two losses against Florida State and Miami, Louisville was a combined minus-five in the turnover margin (didn’t force one takeaway) and was outscored in the first quarter 42-7. Getting off to a fast start should be UK’s top goal.
- In a battle of strength versus strength, it will be interesting to see who can come out on top. Louisville ranks first nationally with 27 40-plus yard plays. Kentucky ranks second nationally with just two plays allowed of 40-plus yards. This is a big play offense against a big play prevention defense. Whoever wins out will have a big say in the final outcome.
- Louisville has had major issues stopping the ground game, but that is not their weakest flaw. This defense ranks 121st in red zone touchdown rate. Opponents have crossed the plane on 71.74 percent of their red zone trips. Since Bowden took over at quarterback, UK has a red zone touchdown rate of 72.22 percent. UK must finish with touchdowns when they create scoring chances.
- In a big rivalry game you should expect the unexpected. Both teams probably plan to throw the kitchen sink at one another with plenty of trick plays and other unconventional football. Facing a potent offense, it will be essential that UK does not allow Louisville to steal possessions. Be aware of onside attempts and fake kicks. Don’t turn it over when you’re backed up. Help your defense out and make them earn scores.
- Keep your composure in a heated game. We all saw how Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State.
Only one game separates these two entering Saturday and it has been a very closely played series. Here are some unique trends riding as we head into the big game.
This will be the seventh meeting between bowl teams in the Governor’s Cup. The road team is 5-1 in those meetings.
In one-possession games, UK is 6-5 against Louisville. Rich Brooks had three of those UK wins.
Since Cardinal Stadium opened, the road team is 16-9 in the series and has won seven of the last nine.
Since the move to the end of the season, the winning team has averaged 44.6 points per game and has only once scored under 40.