Spread: Kentucky -3
Kickoff: Noon ET Saturday, SEC Network
One year after Louisville beat Kentucky at Kroger Field without having to punt the ball once, the Wildcats returned the favor on the Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky did not punt the ball once against Louisville, as they ran for 340 yards on 7.4 yards per carry. A.J. Rose and Benny Snell both had over 100 yards each with three combined touchdowns, and quarterback Terry Wilson claimed the Howard Schellenberger MVP Award with 340 total yards and four total touchdowns, as #15 Kentucky rolled to a 56-10 win over Louisville.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 16-15. The road team has won the last four games of the series, and five of the last nine.
Meet the 2019 Kentucky Wildcats
For the fourth straight season, Mark Stoops has brought Kentucky to bowl eligibility. In the history of Kentucky football, only Bear Bryant and Rich Brooks have also accomplished that feat.
The fact that UK made it here despite dealing with numerous injuries at quarterback, and having to start 2-3 with a revamped offense is a stellar coaching job. The Wildcats would go on to win four of their next six after the 2-3 start, taking wins over Arkansas, Missouri, Vanderbilt and UT-Martin to reach the six-win mark.
Kentucky enters the regular season finale with a 6-5 overall record. The Wildcats are riding a two game winning streak over Vanderbilt and UT-Martin.
Key Offensive Players: QB/UT Lynn Bowden Jr., RB Kavosiey Smoke
I mentioned it earlier, but no team in the FBS has dealt with more injuries at the quarterback position than Kentucky. The Wildcats lost their top three starters to injury, including starter Terry Wilson in game two of the season. Then after Sawyer Smith struggled with both injuries and on-field performance, head coach Mark Stoops decided not to go further down the depth chart and start walk-on Walker Wood in his place.
Instead, Stoops and company decided to move wide receiver Lynn Bowden over to quarterback. Bowden was a quarterback in high school, but moved to wide receiver when he arrived in Lexington and immediately became the team’s most dynamic playmaker. That may sound like a bold statement considering Kentucky had Benny Snell last season, but Bowden was the team’s top receiver last year and this season, as well as an ace on special teams.
Bowden’s transition to quarterback made Kentucky’s offense more run-heavy than ever before, with the junior leading the charge. In the six games Bowden has been the starter, he has put up over 100 rushing yards in five of them (but keep in mind for the sixth that he had 99), and for the season has 951 yards and seven touchdowns.
What makes him so effective in Kentucky’s running game is that the Wildcats spread their personnel out. Not only does it spread the defense, it also allows Bowden to be as effective as he is in open-field running. Bowden has that rare combination of elite agility and footwork that makes him incredibly tough to bring down, and has excellent vision to get more yardage as he is breaking tackles. Louisville’s defense will have its work cut out for them when they have to tackle Bowden on Saturday, especially after struggling with tackling issues in their win over Syracuse last week.
Kentucky also has a trio of stellar running backs that can complement Bowden in their running game. A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke split carries as the primary backs in Kentucky’s offense, and they both carry a similar skill set. Rose (751 yards, five touchdowns) and Smoke (534 yards, six touchdowns) are both capable of busting off big runs behind Kentucky’s strong offensive line, with Rose being the better runner between the tackles.
Christopher Rodriguez (390 yards, four touchdowns) is the third back in Kentucky’s rotation, and to me, he is a very underrated player. He is a tough runner that can get yards after contact like Snell used to, but he doesn’t get enough carries in an offense that ultimately relies on three other guys. But once Bowden and Rose both graduate, he could have an opportunity to be a standout for the Wildcats.
Key Defensive Players: LB DeAndre Square, DL Calvin Taylor
Kentucky entered 2019 having to replace a ton of starters on defense that ultimately wound up in the NFL. That included Josh Allen, who left as arguably the greatest defensive player in school history and was one of the top pass rushers in college football the last two seasons, as well as defensive backs Lonnie Johnson, Mike Edwards, and Derrick Baity.
To their credit, Kentucky has done a good job at recruiting on defense under Mark Stoops. DeAndre Square leads a linebacker group that is probably the strongest unit on the team, tallying 61 tackles, four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Him, Chris Oats, and Kash Daniel lead a Kentucky defense that has allowed 30+ points one time in the last two seasons. They are great as run stuffers and can neutralize Louisville’s interior blocking in their zone running scheme.
Replacing Josh Allen was going to be no easy feat for Kentucky’s 3-4 defense, but Calvin Taylor has been a very solid player this season. Taylor might be the only guy in the nation that can measure up to Louisville’s Mekhi Becton physically, standing at 6’9″ and weighing 300+ pounds. He’s tied for the SEC lead in sacks (7.5) and leads UK with 8.5 tackles for loss. Like Allen, Taylor went from an unheralded recruit in high school (and potential basketball / offensive line prospect) to a starting defensive lineman on Kentucky’s 3-4 defense. He’s the latest diamond-in-the rough type prospect uncovered by Stoops, and one that everyone should be watching on Saturday.
One More Important Thing to Know
Nationally, both Kentucky and Louisville rank in the top 25 in rushing yards per game (Kentucky 12th, 252.4 YPG; Louisville 25th, 214.6). Both teams have also ran for 200+ yards against each other in the last three games, and the winner of the game has done so in seven of the last eight contests.
Can Louisville force Kentucky into third-and-long situations?
The most important thing that Louisville’s defense has to accomplish is force Kentucky into third-and-long situations. Kentucky’s offense can get small bits of yardage on each play, which can set up a 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-medium opportunity where Louisville has to stop Lynn Bowden (or any of the three running backs) in a short-yardage situation. Considering how good Kentucky’s offensive line is, and their ability to get good pushes at the line of scrimmage, that’s not an ideal situation Louisville wants to be in.
If Kentucky gets plenty of those opportunities, the Wildcats will be able to control the tempo and methodically work the clock to keep Louisville’s offense off the field. Kentucky is among the nation’s best at time of possession, averaging 32.5 minutes of possession per game (18th in the FBS).
However, if Louisville is able to shore up its tackling and force Kentucky into third-and-long situations, that would force Lynn Bowden to dropback and throw downfield. Bowden has been capable of hitting shorter throws on quick slants and outs, but hasn’t been able to have a ton of success stretching the field vertically. Bowden can still always scramble for a first down and keep the chains moving, but Louisville still needs to give itself a chance by forcing Kentucky into those third-and-long situations.
As far as stopping the run goes, Louisville could always run a single high safety look and keep most of its personnel near the line of scrimmage. Losing Russ Yeast for the game might affect Louisville’s ability to run such lineups, but the more bodies that Louisville can get around the line of scrimmage and keep the running game contained, the better.
Will Louisville be able to throw the ball downfield?
Kentucky is ranked tenth in the FBS in passing defense (178.5 YPG), but the stat is aided by the fact UK hasn’t played a lot of elite passing teams. Florida and Eastern Michigan are the two best teams that UK has faced in terms of yards per game, and UK barely lost to Florida.
Some of their losses have also been sparked by quality efforts in the passing game. Florida and Mississippi State were able to complete 70+% of its passes in their wins over Kentucky. Despite holding the ball for over 40 minutes and having a 13-0 lead, Tennessee was able to get a comeback victory behind a strong second half from Jarrett Guarantano.
If Louisville can keep its passing game in rhythm throughout the game, I think their offense would be able to keep Kentucky on its heels. Kentucky had struggles with Tennessee’s bigger receivers in the game, and I think Louisville could have similar opportunities ahead with Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins outside. That’s not even covering Tutu Atwell and his absurd ability to hit big plays, particularly timely ones when Louisville needs them.
Can Louisville’s offensive line set the tone at the line of scrimmage?
Kentucky’s losses to Florida, Mississippi State, and Tennessee show that Louisville can win the game by throwing the ball with success.
Kentucky’s losses to Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Georgia on the other hand show that Louisville can win with a strong rushing performance. In those three losses, Kentucky allowed over 235 yards rushing with 5+ yards per carry. Louisville will be the most balanced offense that Kentucky has faced all year, and the Cardinals are just coming off a game where both Micale Cunningham and Javian Hawkins established new career-highs.
Where Louisville’s offensive line can really make a difference, though, is on the edge with Mekhi Becton and Tyler Haycraft. If they can win their matchups against the likes of Calvin Taylor, Jamar Watson and Josh Paschal, Louisville’s zone running could be able to set the tone in their own way against Kentucky. That could sort of counter Kentucky’s own ability to try to control the tempo by holding the ball themselves.
Louisville doesn’t necessarily need to be as methodical as Kentucky is with the clock, but if they can jump to an early lead or establish their gameplan early, UK might not be able to play from behind against this Louisville team.