Finally. No more talking. In two days the hitting begins, the pads will pop, more than likely the rain will fall, and either Louisville or Kentucky will emerge as the winner of the 25th Battle for the Gov’s Cup. The two teams might not be as far apart as many fans think, but the perception of the programs couldn’t be further apart. Louisville comes in with a top 25 ranking and they’re the trendy preseason pick by most media members to win the Big East and return to a BCS Bowl. On the other hand, Kentucky was picked near the bottom of the SEC East – again – and will be fighting for a bowl game as well as their coach’s job. The Cards enter Sunday’s game as a 14 point favorite and have actually dropped the last two home games against the Cats. Louisville won last year’s meeting in Lexington, 24-17, after starting QB Will Stein went down with a shoulder injury and true freshman Teddy Bridgewater came in and guided the team to a victory. Historically, the game has been decided in the trenches and Charlie Strong’s team dominated the ground-game as they rushed for 181 yards and held Kentucky to just 35. With a stable of running backs and an improved offensive line, the Cards will certainly try to once again to utilize a bruising rushing attack as they look to regain momentum in the series.
Offense – Both Teams Need To Show Improvement
Neither team exactly set the world on fire last season from an offensive standpoint. Louisville finished the year 96th in the nation in total offense, averaging just 333 yards per game. However, Kentucky was even worse, checking in at 118 out of 120 D-1 teams. They averaged just 259.8 yards per game. Now both teams have a true sophomore at QB this year and they each saw significant action last season. Both teams also have capable play-makers, so logic should dictate that with players a year older and a year wiser, things should improve. But as of right now, they’re going to have to show me something for me to think they’ll be that much better. Kentucky’s case is particularly hard to predict. Their QB, Maxwell Smith, appeared in 7 games and went 84-153 for 819 yards, 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. The Cats lost a majority of their offensive line and will now depend largely on an unproven group. And as Louisville discovered last year, that can be extremely difficult to overcome, particularly early in the season when you’re still trying to find chemistry as a unit. Replacing three starters (Stuart Hines, Chandler Burden and Billy Joe Murphy) won’t be easy to do, particularly when you’re plugging in a sophomore with limited experience (Darrian Miller) and a redshirt freshman (Zach West). On the flip side, proven players and giant bodies like Larry Warford (who will be drafted next April) at 6-3, 343 lbs and Matt Smith, 6-4, 296 lbs, should at least help the Cats shore up the middle. Smith will have to depend on this line for his safety and to provide adequate time in the pocket to deliver the ball against a stingy UofL defense. On top of that, even with proven starters and seniors on their offensive line last year, UK was terrorized by Louisville’s defensive line all day and gave up 6 sacks and an alarming 14 tackles for loss. The Cats will also be without one of their leading returning rushers from last season, Josh Clemons, who suffered an injury in the spring and will miss at least one game as he recovers. If the Cats do have a bright spot on this offense, it could be in the form of play-makers on the outside. Their veteran receiving corps of La’Rod King, EJ Fields and Gene McCaskill were all starters or major contributors last year, and like Louisville, their two-deep lists some young guys with raw speed and athleticism (Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins). King is UK’s leading returning receiver after finishing with 598 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s run his mouth here in the off-season and the Kentucky native will have plenty to prove on Sunday.
Again, an anemic offense last year proved to be the Cards’ downfall in several instances (FIU, Marshall, Cincy and North Carolina come to mind) and the team was largely carried by a top-25 defense. However, there’s a few things to take into consideration. I’ve heard lots of Kentucky fans ask the following question: “UofL’s offense was so bad last year, why should we think it’ll be any better? It’s the same exact players.”All fair points when looking at this thing with zero objectivity. But here’s the thing, Louisville tossed a true freshman into the mix in the third game of the year. He obviously took his bumps and bruises and got better along the way. By all accounts, including what I’ve seen with my own two eyes and what the coaching staff repeatedly tells us, this kid is ready to make the jump. He’s a student of the game and he has every single tool to be one of – if not THE – greatest QB’s in Louisville football history. The offensive line is another point of concern. But remember, after missing multiple pieces (including its anchor, Mario Benavides) and suffering injury after injury, all while plugging in two – and at times three - true freshmen (Jamon Brown, John Miller and Jake Smith), it took a while to gel and form that necessary chemistry. And by week 6, when they began to get healthy and gel, the line improved immensely and helped the Cards reel off 5 wins in their last 6 regular season games. Also, remember, all the key play-makers are back on the outside, with the exception of Michaelee Harris who sustained a torn ACL in summer camp. Wide Receiver’s Andrell Smith, Eli Rogers, DeVante Parker, Scott Radlclif, Jarret Davis and Damian Copeland all saw significant action last year and look to improve upon the experience they gained. Factor in explosive true freshman Charles Gaines, and you could be looking at the deepest single position on the field. And then there’s the running backs. You have four guys still vying for the starting job, and all of them offer something unique. Juniors Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright look to carry most of the load for the Cards as they bring the most physical style of running, but are also capable of hitting long sustained runs for huge gains. Junior Senorise Perry and redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb also look to contribute to Louisville’s ample rushing attack. Finally, if you want to point to one major change and projected improvement for UofL’s offense, look at who’s calling the plays. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson took over last year during the 5th week against North Carolina and never got to truly implement his brand. He was left with a frayed system from former coordinator Mike Sanford, and now with a full year to work with Bridgewater and the rest of the offense, expect a new and improved offense much more capable of stretching the field. While much of Louisville’s offense the last two years was predicated on pulling the guards and running the ball up the middle, look for more of a traditional west coast offense to be installed gradually this year in which Bridgewater can use his legs – to make throws or runs – on the move. I also expect to see a lot more short slants and misdirection plays that keep the defenses guessing. After all, the best way to keep the defense back on their heels is to have a balanced attack and, for the first time since 2006, Louisville should have that.
Defense – A clear advantage for the Cards
The Cards have boasted a nationally ranked defense the last two years and there’s absolutely no reason to think things will be any different this season. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is a star in the making and will assuredly be running his own program in a short amount of time. Louisville returns 10 starters and will be improved in the one area that needed a little shoring up: the secondary. The safety tandem of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor will safe-guard the middle of the field and both players are capable of one-on-one outside coverage as well as coming up and stopping the run. Throw in the addition of highly-touted freshman Gerod Holliman, who should see the majority of his time in the nickel package, and the safety spot should be a major strength for this unit. On the outside, all-conference selection Adrian Bushell and super-sophomores Terell Floyd and Andrew Johnson will help lock down the opponents’ receivers. Again, a year older, a year wiser. LaRod King and Gene McCaskill will likely have their hands full. Moving up to the linebacker spot, the Brown Brothers (not literally) Daniel and Preston will help anchor a unit that hasn’t gotten much pub, but should be solid as usual. Junior George Durant has made big strides and looks to have locked up the SAM linebacker slot. Along with true freshmen US Army All-Americans Keith Brown, Nick Dawson and James Burgess, the LB position looks to be as deep and talented as ever. But if you’re looking for one strength of this defense, much like Kentucky, it might be the linemen. Louisville plays a 4-3 defense and all 4 starters are back on what was a menacing group last year. We already gave you the stats against a veteran-laced UK offensive line last year, so I see no reason not to expect more of the same from BJ Dubose, Marcus Smith, Roy Philon and Brandon Dunn this year. Throw in a rotation that includes Deiontrez Mount, Sheldon Rankins, Lorenzo Mauldin and more, and you can see why the staff is so excited about this group.
This UK defense lost a lot from last year and, even then, they were an average unit. All-conference safety Winston Guy is gone and so is all-world linebacker Danny Trevathan. The Cats return just one starter in their secondary (corner Martavius Neloms) and I fully expect the Cards to attack this unproven unit early and often. Neloms is the leading returning tackler on the team after recording 71 and 2.5 TFL last season. Look for speedy Louisville receiver DeVante Parker (6-4) to exploit a nice size advantage as UK’s tallest secondary player is just 6-1. In the middle, as mentioned, the Cats will have to replace one of their best linebackers of all time in Trevathan. They’ll plug in sophomore Tyler Brause in his place at the Weak Side spot and then they round out the unit with sophomore Alvin Dupree at the MIKE, Miles Simpson at SAM and since they run a 4-3 defense, a second MIKE, Avery Williamson will also be in there most of the time. Similar to what the Cards do with Mauldin and Mount, look for Williamson to play sort of a hyrbid DE – LB position at times, depending on how the offense lines up. But if you’re looking at one strength for this unit, like Louisville, it should be on the defensive line. They return three starters with Donte Rumph (6-3, 315), Collins Ukwu (6-5, 258) and Mister Cobble (6-0, 331) and they’ll plug in Dupree (6-4, 247) when needed in certain situations. Rumph and Cobble are huge bodies up the middle for Kentucky and have the speed to move the blockers and stop the run. For as long as this game has been played, the winner has controlled the ground game, so it will be vital for UK to plug some holes and at least contain the rushing attack of Louisville. If many pundits are right, this UK defensive line could be the difference.
Special Teams – The Biggest Question Mark For Both Teams
Both teams are looking to replace punters and, in Louisville’s case, both a punter and a kicker. Senior Craig McIntosh is back for the Cats after connecting on 12-14 field goals last year and 20-21 PAT’s. However, they lose their star punter Ryan Tydlacka who now plays in the NFL. He’ll be replaced by a big-time recruit and true freshman, Landon Foster. The punting game was big for the Cats last year as the pinned the Cards deep in their own territory multiple times. If they can control the field and do the same this year, they’ll help slow down the pace and force Watson’s offense to sustain long drives for scores. As for the return game, the Cats used seniors Winston Guy and Randall Burden for the majority of their special teams needs last season, and now they’ve listed running backs CoShik Williams and Ray Sanders as the Kickoff returners and wide receivers Demarco Robinson and Gene McCaskill as their punt returners. On the other side, if you’re picking one major weakness or area of concern for Louisville, it’s special teams. The word out of camp – and straight from Charlie Strong’s mouth in a press conference earlier this week – is that the kicking game is not going well. During the Kragthorpe era, we all saw what a disastrous kicking game can do to your offense, so it’ll be vital for someone to step up and become “the guy”. Right now freshmen Josh Appleby (Punter) and John Wallace (Place Kicking) are listed as the starters, but from what we understand, nothing is set in stone on the place-kicking side. Appleby was a highly touted prospect and has been doing a decent job, but unless the team sees a quick improvement from either Wallace or his main competition, sophomore Matt Nakatani, the kicking game will remain a huge mystery for this team heading into the season. For the return game the Cards have made some major changes. Addressing some issues from last year (lack of production, fumbles, turnovers), the team has turned to some of their biggest play-makers on offense to help improve their special teams. Receivers Kai Dominguez, DeVante Parker and Charles Gaines will now be used on punt returns while corners Adrian Bushell and Stephan Robinson look to be the primary kick return tandem. Bushell broke a few longs ones late in the year and if the Cards want to see some major improvements this season, they’ll need to step up and provide more big play opportunities.
Prediction – It Might Be Wet, But There’s No Slowing Down The Cards
I’ve gone back and forth with this thing a hundred times. I have zero doubts that Louisville will win the game. And if they played in the 6th or 7th week, I think Louisville would win handily. However, with it being a rivalry, the first game of the season, with just a few weeks of camp and practice, and with unpredictable weather on the horizon, I think the two teams might not be as far apart as some fans think. I fully expect the Cards to show flashes of a newly-installed offense and score their fair share of points. I simply cannot see a scenario in which Louisville doesn’t control the ground game. They did it last year against a more experienced defensive line – and that was without Benavides and tossing a freshman in there from the defensive line for his first start. With the running game intact, I believe Watson and Bridgewater will be able to keep the UK secondary off-balanced by hitting short passes for 6-7 yard gains. With the safeties and corners up to protect the run, watch for Parker, Smith and Gaines to exploit a clear advantage downfield. Defensively, I simply can’t envision a scenario where the Cats score more than two touchdowns. I fully expect Joker Phillips to brings some new offensive wrinkles to the table. Those wrinkles could and should work for a while. But eventually the players and coaches will adjust accordingly. And while Smith appears to be a capable QB, a chess match against Strong and Bedford – two defensive geniuses – doesn’t exactly appear to be the best idea.
Cards 24 Cats 14