How to Watch: Noon kickoff on SEC Network
Spread: Louisville -10
Last Time: In one of the biggest upsets of 2016, Kentucky stunned the Cardinals after Austin MacGinnis hit a 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to pull out a 41-38 win over their rival. The Wildcats capitalized on four turnovers, including the late-game fumble that eventually led to MacGinnis’ field goal at the very end.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 15-14, but Louisville has won five of the last six in the rivalry.
Meet the Kentucky Wildcats
Like Louisville, the Wildcats enter tomorrow’s game at 7-4. However, they are coming off a crushing 42-13 loss at Georgia. Other than that, Kentucky has been defined by its several close games in 2017; four of their seven wins have been decided by one possession, whereas two losses to Florida and Ole Miss came on last-second scores.
Every year under head coach Mark Stoops, the Wildcats have progressively improved their record.
Players to Watch:
- QB Stephen Johnson
After last year’s game, Johnson’s performance will have a big impact on whether or not Kentucky can once again keep up with Louisville’s offense. Louisville struggled to get pressure last year and Johnson capitalized with a lot of big throws downfield. Johnson won’t typically light up scoreboards like Jackson (I think mainly due to the run-heavy style Kentucky has adopted), but he is efficient and that’s a good first step to winning games. He’s upped his accuracy to 62% this season with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
It’s worth noting that last year, Johnson’s only game of 300+ passing yards against a Power Five school came against Louisville.
- RB Benny Snell, Jr.
One area that Kentucky hasn’t lacked in recent years under Stoops has been the running back position. Boom Williams was an explosive back, but never got enough carries and had a few injuries. With Eddie Gran as offensive coordinator, they’ve embraced a run-first scheme in the spread and Snell has led the charge.
With Snell, you have a running back that can find a lane and get into first and second gear immediately. His physical running style could challenge a Louisville defense that has struggled against power backs. They also like to incorporate Wildcat plays for him, or have him hand it off to freshman speedster Lynn Bowden.
Snell has 16 touchdowns this season and already holds Kentucky’s career rushing touchdown record as a true sophomore.
- LB Jordan Jones
Under Stoops, Kentucky has gradually improved their talent on defense. Jones is easily one of the best players that has played under him in Lexington as their middle linebacker. They like to send him on blitz packages and he’ll make plays sideline-to-sideline. Jones anchors the middle of the defense very well, and complemented with edge rushers like Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, has been a big part of why Kentucky is 7-4 this season.
- Louisville DL v. Kentucky OL
It’s as straightforward as it gets, in terms of matchups. Louisville’s defense was simply outclassed by Kentucky’s offensive line last season, which was probably one of the better units that they faced last year.
This year, the talent gap has closed between the two. Louisville’s defensive line has stepped up its play in November, entering tomorrow’s game with five sacks in their last two games and generating a lot more pressure. Kentucky’s offensive line has played well, but they’ve been missing starters like Cole Mosier all season. If Louisville can get pressure and contain Snell, forcing Johnson to beat them again is a gamble they’d be willing to take.
- Lamar Jackson v. Kentucky Front Seven
Jackson had a lot of turnovers in last year’s Governor’s Cup battle, but otherwise has given Kentucky’s defense absolute fits. Jackson has ran 42 times for 371 yards and four touchdowns, and may be in line for yet another big game in the rivalry.
What Kentucky will need to do to try and contain him again is get Jones, Denzil Ware and Josh Allen opportunities to slow him down. All three lead the team in tackles for loss (10.5 for Allen, 9.5 for Ware, 6.5 for Jones) but are only 91st in the country in that category. However, they are 29th in sacks, so they can use blitzes and stunts to try and force Jackson into errant throws. Jackson is 24 / 46 for 411 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions; three of those picks came in last year’s loss to the Wildcats.
- Kentucky Trying to Replace Cole Conrad
Kentucky TE C.J. Conrad will miss the game, and it’s not overstated how big of a role he had in their offense. The tight end was a reliable target for Stephen Johnson and was an adept blocker in their running game. Conrad also led the team in touchdown receptions (four) and had 16 catches on the season, third-best on the team.
How does Kentucky replace that? They’ll start either Greg Hart or Justin Rigg at the position. Both guys have combined for only four catches in 2017, so one of them stepping up on Senior Day would be tremendous for them.
However, I’d expect Kentucky’s wide receivers to try and replace his production. Garrett Johnson leads the team in receptions and yards by a substantial margin (46 receptions, 500 yards), but likely will get shadowed by Jaire Alexander all game.
Lynn Bowden or Tavin Richardson could be their breakout guy, if they have one. Bowden is a reliable playmaker but doesn’t get the touches most would like. With Conrad gone, it’ll be interesting if Stoops can get Bowden more designed plays to let him break one for 40 or 50 yards. Richardson or even Blake Bone could see more targets, but one of them will have to step up besides Garrett Johnson.
Other Matchups to Watch
- Turnover Battle: Kentucky is +5 in turnover margin entering tomorrow’s game; Louisville is +3, but coming off a four-interception performance against Syracuse.
- Kentucky DBs v. Louisville WRs; Louisville’s 12th-ranked passing offense (319.2 YPG) against Kentucky’s 116th ranked defense (267.8).
- Benny Snell v. Louisville LBs; When Snell runs for at least 100 yards, the Wildcats are 9-2 in that two-year span. With less than 100 yards, Kentucky is 5-6.
- Garrett Johnson v. Jaire Alexander; in last year’s game, Johnson posted a career-high 164 yards and two touchdowns, both of those coming on receptions of 60+ yards.