You have been waiting all season for this, the UofL vs. UK football game to close the 2015 regular season. With a desperate Kentucky team needing a win to secure bowl eligibility for the first time in five years, the Cardinals travel to Lexington looking to end any bowl aspirations of the ‘Cats for a second straight season.
What a memorable game it was the last time Kentucky and Louisville played. The 22nd-ranked Cardinals trailed Kentucky 13-0, but third-string quarterback Kyle Bolin came in for an injured Reggie Bonnafon and saved the day. With an unbelievable performance from the redshirt freshman (21/31, 381 yards, 3 TD) and senior WR DeVante Parker (6 rec., 180 yards, 3 TD), the Cardinals roared back to a 44-40 win over the Wildcats.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 14-13, but Louisville has won the last four and can tie the series with a win on Saturday.
Louisville enters the rivalry game 6-5, losing their last game to Pittsburgh 45-34. Kentucky enters the finale 5-6, ending a five-game losing streak with a 58-10 win over Charlotte.
Once thought to be a sure lock for a bowl game entering Saturday’s game, Kentucky is back to where they were last season; 5-6, and needing a win to secure bowl eligibility. They’re led by third-year coach Mark Stoops, who’s made some strides in Lexington but as shown this year, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Kentucky hired Shannon Dawson from West Virginia as their new offensive coordinator after Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy. Dawson’s system is mostly about high tempo and the patented “Air Raid” system that has been predominant in the Stoops era at Lexington.
After Patrick Towles was benched due to wildly inconsistent play all year, Stoops turned to his redshirt freshman Drew Barker to try and lead Kentucky to their first bowl game since 2010. Barker is from Conner High School and has a solid arm, but he’s still very inexperienced at the college level. He has a trio of solid receivers that can help him in Jeff Badet, Garrett “Juice” Johnson, and Dorian Baker. Juice is their big play receiver and can gash a vulnerable Louisville secondary for 40, 50 yards if he gets open. Baker is a big target at 6’3” that can utilize his size against the 5’10” Shaq Wiggins and/or Trumaine Washington.
But for Kentucky’s offense, their biggest strength is clearly their running game. The Wildcats have a trio of running backs that can do serious damage in Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton, and Boom Williams. All three can score on any given carry (Boom, most notably, had a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the season), and for a Louisville defense that has struggled at times with a solid running game (ex: Auburn, Florida State and Pitt), containing the Kentucky running backs is a big key to victory. Regardless of who is in the back field on Saturday, stopping the Kentucky running game is very important.
Defensively, they are also in the middle of some changes. The pass-rushing duo of Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree are gone to the NFL, and the Wildcats have lacked a dominant pass rusher all year. Corey Johnson is a solid player at nose tackle, one who can give the interior offensive line of Louisville major issues. Matt Elam can pose a threat as an imposing 360-pound nose tackle, but he’s lacked the ability to command double teams or utilize his overwhelming size to his advantage. Linebacker Josh Forrest leads a group of solid Kentucky linebackers, with Jason Hatcher and Khalid Henderson among those that flank him.
If there’s one area for Louisville to exploit, it should be the secondary, which is starting two freshmen at corner with Derrick Baity and Jason Westry. Both are pretty tall for their position at 6’3” and 6’4”, respectively, and Westry has been good with eight pass breakups and two interceptions. Safety A.J. Stamps is a solid player with four picks last year (one notably against Louisville), but amazingly hasn’t had one all year.
Last week was a game you would like to forget as a Louisville fan. After rallying from an 0-3 start to win six of their next seven, the Cardinals were quickly brought down to reality by a talented Pittsburgh team. Nathan Peterman threw for a career-high four touchdowns and Qadree Ollison ran for 152 yards en route to 42 first-half points (the most allowed by Louisville since 2008). Though the Cardinals would rally back to within one score, the Panthers added a late field goal to secure a 45-34 victory.
Once again, we are back to square one with the quarterback position. After Kyle Bolin threw a pick-six late in the second quarter, Lamar Jackson came out to rally the Cardinals again. Jamari Staples was by far the star of this game, with nine catches for 194 yards and a touchdown on a Hail Mary late in the first half. Overall, the passing game for Louisville was not as bad as you would think; sure there were plenty of protection breakdowns and the costly pick six that Bolin threw, but 355 yards for three touchdowns is a solid night overall. Entering the Kentucky game, Bobby Petrino said that he has not decided on a starter and will decide during the week who will get the nod against Kentucky.
The defense was clearly outclassed by a much more disciplined, better football team. Peterman had a career day with 232 yards and four touchdowns (often abusing the much smaller corners and Josh Harvey-Clemons), and Ollison had a career high 152 yards and a touchdown. Other than a pair of sacks by Devonte Fields, the Pitt offensive line had a pretty successful day overall against the Louisville defense, which has had a rough couple of weeks since the Syracuse game.
How Louisville Wins This Game
- Defensive line must win. As evidenced by how Pitt ran the ball very well last week, stopping Kentucky’s running game is going to be very, very important. In Louisville’s five losses, they’ve allowed an average of 199 yards rushing. Against a sub-par Kentucky offensive line, it’s important for the defensive line to make stops, and especially for edge rushers to not over pursue in the running game. If they over pursue or Kentucky’s offensive line wins the battle upfront, UK’s running game will have a big day.
- Win the turnover battle. In the last two games, Louisville’s defense has not created a turnover (although special teams forced a fumble in the Virginia battle). Louisville’s defense has to generate turnovers and create havoc for an inexperienced Barker, while the offense has to limit turnovers, which plagued them last year against the Wildcats.
- Establish the running game. No matter who starts at quarterback, it’s important for Louisville to establish a running game against a Kentucky defense that has been weak at stopping it. The Wildcats are ranked 90th in rushing defense, and have allowed 5 YPC in five games while not being able to allow under 100 yards rushing in a game all season. As shown in the Syracuse game, when Louisville is able to get their running game going, they can parlay that into a play-action pass and hit Kentucky for big plays down the field. If Lamar plays, I would expect him to take it himself out of the pocket or in read-option and get big yardage through there.
Interesting Stat of the Week
Louisville’s -1 yard rushing is their lowest rushing total since losing 26 yards on the ground in a 45-31 loss vs. TCU on 10/19/02.
— Kelly Dickey (@RealCardGame) November 22, 2015
How Louisville performs, in my eyes, will depend on which quarterback starts between Bolin and Lamar Jackson. Kentucky has struggled against quarterbacks that can escape the pocket (ex: Lamar Jackson), but Bolin could get a start due to his stellar play in last year’s game. Either way, I do expect Louisville to again get their fair share of points on Saturday. However, can Louisville’s defense bounce back from an abysmal performance last week? In my opinion, it’s clear that the X-factor of this game is the Kentucky offensive line. If they fail to get pushes in the running game or protect Barker, Kentucky is going to be in for a long day. While Kentucky is going to come out fired up and wanting revenge from last year, I expect Louisville to be just as ready, and in my eye, they’ll get their offense going just enough to pull out a win in Lexington.