Don’t look now, but at noon eastern, approximately the same moment that this post is bestowed upon the world, we will sit just 48 hours from kickoff of the Kentucky – Louisville football game. As the remaining hours until kickoff slowly creep by, I become more and more aware of an internal conflict as to how I believe this edition of the Kentucky football “dream game” will play out. At one moment, I think Louisville is miles ahead of the Cats in terms of the development of their program. Charlie Strong has had three years to construct his Cardinal squad, and has turned Louisville into a legitimate top ten team led by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. At the very next moment, I am dismissive of the Cards, viewing them as little more than a paper tiger. In those moments, I believe that the Cats have a sneaky chance in this game despite some clear limitations. I had truly hoped that at some point prior to writing this post that I would be able to reconcile my feelings, and provide some legitimate insight as to whether the optimistic or pessimistic view of this game was more supported by the evidence. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to decide. Therefore, I’m just going to argue both sides. (Being a lawyer in my day job, I’ve always found integrity to be a bit overrated anyway.)
WHY KENTUCKY WILL LOSE ON SATURDAY: (The Jerry Tipton perspective)
The Louisville Cardinals will roll into town on Saturday as the seventh ranked team in the nation. The Cardinals began the 2013 season fresh off an eleven and two year in 2012, capped by a convincing win over the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Through two games this season, the Louisville offense, led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, has averaged 47 points per game. Bridgewater, a likely NFL top five overall pick after the season, has completed 80% of his passes with 9 touchdowns compared to just one interception so far this season. Bridgewater has a deep and experienced receiving corps and an outstanding stable of running backs at his disposal. Defensively, the Cardinals have given up only a single touchdown in each of their first two games. Head coach Charlie Strong, a life-long defensive coach, has put together another in a long line of athletic and aggressive defenses.
In seeking evidence that Saturday will be a red day in Commonwealth Stadium, one need look no further than the 2012 match-up. In that game, Bridgewater picked Kentucky apart with precision passing, completing 19 of 21 attempts for 232 yards. However, it was the Louisville running game that really doomed the Cats. The Kentucky defense gave up 219 yards on the ground to the Cards. Unfortunately for the Big Blue, many of the players who victimized the Cats in 2012 are back for the return engagement. In addition to Bridgewater, running back Senorise Perry returns after rushing for 108 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries against the Cats last year. Louisville’s leading two receivers from the 2012 game, Damian Copeland and DeVante Parker, will both be in the starting lineup on Saturday. The two have already combined for 6 touchdown catches on the young season. Incidentally, Louisville also adds transfer running back Michael Dyer, a firearms enthusiast who also happened to once be offensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game while an Auburn Tiger before transferring to a myriad of other institutes of higher learning, one of which may have been Nashville Auto Diesel College.
In short, Louisville will bring a highly talented and experienced team to face a young and somewhat thin Kentucky squad in the infancy stage of the Mark Stoops’ building project. In some ways, Stoops’ status entering Saturday’s contest is reminiscent of Charlie Strong’s first game on the Louisville sideline, in which he was in full rebuild mode after the Steve Kragthorpe debacle. Joker Phillips’ Cats beat Strong handily that day. It was evident Strong would improve the program, but that it would take some time. Mark Stoops may well experience similar growing pains against a full-grown Louisville team on Saturday.
WHY KENTUCKY WILL WIN ON SATURDAY: (The John Short “yes indeedy” perspective)
Louisville is extraordinarily overrated, and a closer view of their results shows that they are a mediocre team artificially boosted by a soft schedule and a very good quarterback. While it is true that Louisville went 11 and 2 last season, let’s take a closer look at their results before comparing them to the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. While Louisville did defeat a clearly disinterested Florida team in the Sugar Bowl, they also lost to both Syracuse and UConn. Syracuse, a decent but unspectacular team, handled the Cards 45-36. The Orange put up 524 yards against the vaunted Charlie Strong defense, including 278 yards on the ground. Louisville was held to 48 yards rushing, likely due to Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense. UConn, who managed to go 5 and 7 and 2 and 5 in the now-defunct Big East, defeated Louisville at Papa John’s Stadium. Even the games Louisville managed to win last season reveal that they are vulnerable. Louisville beat perennial powerhouse Florida International, who went 3 and 9, by 7 points. They then beat Southern Miss, who failed to win a single game all season, by four, and slipped by 3 and 9 South Florida by two. Their wins over Cincinnati, Rutgers and UNC were by a combined 11 points. The point is that Louisville is not Alabama, who won by an average of four touchdowns per game last season against infinitely stronger competition. If Louisville can lose at home to UConn, there is absolutely no reason to think the Cats can’t beat them in Commonwealth on Saturday.
Kentucky is a different team than the one Louisville saw last September in the last lifeless season of the Joker Phillips’ era. The program has been rejuvenated by Mark Stoops, and more importantly, has added talent at key positions. The last time Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass against the Cats, he did not have to concern himself with Za’Darius Smith, the nation’s current leader in sacks. Similarly, when Max Smith threw passes against the Cards in 2012, he did not have Ryan Timmons or Javess Blue on the receiving end. While it is true that the season opener was a disappointment, Kentucky’s quantum leap from week one to week two, on both sides of the ball, demonstrates that Stoops and company have the attention of their team. The young Cats are not a finished product, but they will be a hungry and dangerous squad on Saturday.
HOW WILL WE KNOW?
If history is any indicator, it will not take long before we know whether the positive or the negative forecast wins out. Specifically, though Saturday’s game promises to provide no shortage of aerial fireworks, it will be the more efficient ground game that wins the day. The single most remarkable stat in the Kentucky-Louisville series is that in every game since 1996, the team with the most rushing yards has won the game. This point is underscored by Louisville’s results from last season. Almost without exception, the games in which Louisville struggled were those in which they abandoned their ground game, and relied solely on Bridgewater’s arm. If Kentucky is to pull off the upset, they must make Louisville one dimensional. They also must continue to run the ball effectively as they have in their first two games. Do this, and history says the Cats pull it off.
Let me know in the comments section whether you are of the glass half empty or glass half full point of view for this game. Go Cats!