Spread: Kentucky -17.5
How to Watch / Listen: Kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Last Time: Louisville delivered a flawless performance in the 30th edition of the Bluegrass Bowl. The Cardinals had 546 total yards on offense, including a staggering 346 rushing. Louisville’s offense had no sacks allowed, no turnovers and no punts on the day as they effortlessly rolled to a 44-17 win over their bitter rival.
The series is tied at 15-15. The road team has won the last two games in the rivalry.
The State of the Kentucky Wildcats
2018 has proven to be, by far, Mark Stoops’s best season in Lexington. Backed behind a quality running game and top-tier defense, the Wildcats have two ranked wins, including a road victory against Florida (which was their first over the Gators since 1986). They also have wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri.
Kentucky enters the game 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings, with an 8-3 record. With a win, the Wildcats would earn their first nine-win season since 1984, and would still be in play for their first ten-win season since 1977.
Key Players: EDGE Josh Allen, CB Mike Edwards, RB Benny Snell
Louisville has faced many top tier pass rushers this season, from Boston College’s Zach Allen, to Florida State’s Brian Burns, to the fearsome foursome that is Clemson’s defensive line. Kentucky’s star edge rusher Josh Allen has to be among the very best that the Cardinals will have faced this season. He was always a top player on Kentucky’s team, but this year has taken the leap to perhaps one of the best pass rushers in the country.
This offseason, he added 30 pounds of muscle to his frame, putting him at a staggering 6’5″ and 260 pounds. His ideal NFL size, combined with his speed and increased power, just overwhelms a ton of his matchups. Josh Allen has 13 sacks on the year, which is now the single-season Kentucky record and 2.5 times more than the next leading player (Jamar Watson, five). Expect Allen to be a legitimate first-round prospect, preferably to a team in a 3-4 system so that he has time to build his pass rushing moves.
An underrated component of Kentucky’s defense is the length that they have in the secondary. All of their starters average around six foot in height, which is ideal when you go against a team that has size at wide receiver like Louisville does. Mike Edwards is the best of the bunch, playing at safety and being second in tackles for Kentucky (75 combined). He is coming off a stellar game last week against Middle Tennessee State, tallying 12 tackles and a pick-six. If Louisville has issues with the turnover bug again, Edwards could be a guy that forces a fumble or intercepts a misfired pass.
On offense, it will be one of the SEC’s best running backs against a defense that has struggled all season against the run. Benny Snell rushed for 211 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s loss, and it should be expected he will see at least 20 touches and likely 100+ yards again. He is an extremely physical runner, able to go between the tackles, run behind his pads and shed tackles at the first level. He doesn’t have high-end speed to break open some big runs at the second level. However, his physicality and his ability to get stronger as the game progresses wears defenses out, and that will present problems for a Louisville defense that hasn’t been good at stopping the run in the first place.
Kentucky Running Game v. Louisville Front Seven
As mentioned earlier, Kentucky has a colossal mismatch on paper against Louisville’s rushing defense. The Wildcats average 4.6 yards per carry and 189 yards per game this season, whereas the Cardinals allow 5.9 yards per carry and 271 yards per game.
Louisville has only had one game where they’ve allowed under 100 rushing yards this season (Florida State). Given that, Kentucky should be looking to run the ball, and run the ball some more with Snell.
But they have to incorporate others into the running game, as well. AJ Rose is a really talented back that has a lot more speed than Snell, and figures to be the next starting tailback once Snell (presumably) declares for the 2019 NFL Draft. Quarterback Terry Wilson has shown some mobility as a dual-threat option, and should be relied upon to ease the burden off of Snell.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Louisville tries what others have been doing in recent weeks, putting seven or eight guys in the box and forcing Kentucky to beat them through the air. It may not matter given their woes, but they have to try everything they can to bottle up Kentucky’s rushing game.
Can Louisville Force Terry Wilson Into Committing Turnovers?
Kentucky’s running game is their bread and butter for two reasons; their offense has been pretty bland under offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, and they have had really inconsistent play in the passing game. Terry Wilson has completed 67% of his passes, but he only has 6.6 yards per attempt and has really struggled with turnovers all season. Wilson has even been benched in a couple of games this season due to his rough play against Eastern Michigan and Missouri.
Where Louisville can make it a closer game is trying to disrupt Wilson and force some turnovers. Kentucky’s passing game will probably continue to be limited to short, easy completions for Wilson to make. Lynn Bowden (56 catches, 575 yards, three touchdowns) and tight end C.J. Conrad (27 catches, 238 yards, three touchdowns) account for almost half of their totals in receptions and yards, and they will likely be the feature guys in Kentucky’s passing game again. Louisville has to key on them and force an interception (or two) to give their offense some momentum.
Can Louisville’s Quarterback Be the Difference Maker?
With bowl eligibility out of the question, Louisville has all the intangibles for a major upset. They’ll have a night crowd (even though it’s reasonable to guess Kentucky will have a massive turnout at Cardinal Stadium), and this is the final game of their season on top of it being a rivalry game.
Kentucky has been vulnerable in the second half of the season due to their inconsistency on offense, struggling in one possession games against Vanderbilt and Missouri, and then losing at Tennessee two weeks ago. If Kentucky struggles again, Louisville’s offense has to get going through their quarterback position to make it a possible upset.
The Cardinals have managed to tally 200+ rushing yards in the past two games, and quarterback Malik Cunningham has been the main factor for it. He’s the only player on Louisville’s roster with a 100-yard game, and leads the team in rushing with 408 yards. Louisville should be looking to start him because he hasn’t been as prone to turnovers as Jawon Pass has been, and he can scramble for yards if receivers aren’t able to get open.
But Louisville’s passing game hasn’t been able to get going in the second half of the season, due to constant turnovers and an inability to get completions to stretch out drives. If Louisville chooses to start Malik, they should be looking to get him some easy completions instead of trying to force too many throws downfield. Giving Malik a steady running game and short-to-intermediate passing game would see Louisville actually sustain drives on offense, and keep Louisville’s defense from having to stay out too long against Kentucky’s running game.
They also need to stick to one quarterback from start to finish, especially if it is a one or two-possession game. Part of the problem with the offense is that the quarterback position hasn’t been consistent, both in terms of play and in terms of personnel. It does nothing for a quarterback’s confidence if he knows he can be taken out for having a slump in the middle of the game. Even if Cunningham — or Jawon Pass, for that matter — can’t get drives going, that should be expected against a strong Kentucky defense. That doesn’t mean they should make a change, if the game is within reach. Sticking to one quarterback, and the gameplan surrounding him, would be a good start towards building confidence.