Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Spread: Louisville -3, O/U 57 (Caesars Sportsbook)
Kentucky’s rushing attack could not be stopped in their last encounter. On a rainy afternoon in Lexington, the Wildcats rushed for a school-record 517 yards, with receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden tallying 284 on the ground and four rushing touchdowns. Christopher Rodriguez added 125 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well, as he and Bowden averaged over 13 yards per carry together.
The Kentucky defense also held Louisville to 318 total yards, and tallied six sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 17-15. Kentucky has won three of the last four in the series, and the winner has scored 38+ points in each of the last five contests.
2021 Kentucky Wildcats at a Glance
Before the 2020 season, the SEC decided to go with a ten game, conference-only schedule, the first time since 1993 that Louisville and Kentucky did not play each other in football. Kentucky would go to finish 5-6 that season, ending with a bowl victory over 23rd-ranked NC State in the Gator Bowl.
The 2021 Wildcats team started the season 6-0, including back-to-back wins over then tenth-ranked Florida and LSU to climb to 11th in the polls. But losses in the next three games to Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee sent the Wildcats out of the Top 25 entirely. Coming into this game off back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and New Mexico State, Kentucky enters Saturday night with an 8-3 record.
Kentucky Offense Breakdown
The offense made substantial changes this offseason, starting with the firing of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran (though Kentucky eventually rehired him to another role) and hiring Liam Coen from the Los Angeles Rams. They also got a lot of help from the transfer portal, landing quarterback Will Levis (Penn State) and Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska), the latter whom played at Western Hills High School in Frankfort.
Levis and Robinson have mostly been what Kentucky fans were hoping for. Levis has elevated the quarterback position with a big arm and capable running ability, completing almost 66 percent of his passes and has been solid at hitting some deep and intermediate throws, along with a quick release. He has struggled with decision making as he’s thrown 12 interceptions this season, but he has been a net positive for Kentucky at the most important position.
With Robinson, Kentucky gets almost an exact replica of Bowden in the offense. Robinson is capable of turning quick screens into massive plays, he’s incredibly nimble as a runner and has a quick burst once he gets the ball on the perimeter.
Josh Ali is a great complementary piece outside that can get tough 50/50 balls, he led the team last year in receiving. If Kentucky is able to get open looks from Ali in this game, UK will likely score a ton of points against Louisville. Izayah Cummings (13 rec,. 182 yards, three TDs) and Justin Rigg (17 rec., 174 yards, four TDs) are also big targets that could pose matchup problems for Louisville, particularly in the redzone.
Kentucky still has a reliable running game with Christopher Rodriguez as its anchor. Rodriguez is averaging a steady six yards per carry and has over 1,000 yards on the ground this season. He’s a speedster that can get to the second level in a flash, and is a decent receiver out of the backfield with 12 receptions this year. Both of Kentucky’s reserve backs (Ju’Tahn McClain and Kavosiey Smoke) are also great depth pieces in both run and pass, but UK’s only knock is they haven’t given either guy enough touches to spell Rodriguez over the year.
Even with Kentucky’s explosive playmakers, turnovers have plagued the offense significantly over the course of the season. Levis has struggled with decision making on his throws, and Rodriguez himself has struggled with fumble issues all season long. UK enters Saturday with a -14 turnover margin, ranking 129th out of 130 FBS schools (Louisville is +3, T-42nd in that category).
Players to Watch: QB Will Levis (65.8% completion, 2,430 yards, 23 TDs, 12 INTs); RB Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. (6.1 yards per carry, 1,151 rushing yards, seven TDs); WR Wan’Dale Robinson (85 rec., 1,081 yards, seven TDs)
Kentucky Defense Breakdown
It should come as no surprise that Kentucky remains stout in the front seven, even with them losing first-rounders Josh Allen (2019) and Jamin Davis (2021) to the NFL.
I’m obligated, as a Moore alumni, to start my breakdown by mentioning how good J.J. Weaver has been as an edge rusher. He leads the team in sacks (six) and has been great at creating negative plays. He’s got the NFL size at 6’5″, 241 lbs. to play at 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, with a great combination of speed and pass rush moves. Another year of development could see him join Allen and Davis, along with 2015 first-rounder Bud Dupree, as high round draft picks from Lexington.
Josh Paschal and DeAndre Square add two more veterans that combine for 23.5 tackles for loss; combined with Weaver’s ten TFLs, all three account for nearly half of Kentucky’s season total. Paschal is a defensive end that can play the run very well and has solid pass rush moves, while Square is an all-around talent at linebacker. Jacquez Jones is another upperclassmen in the front seven that leads the team in total tackles.
Where Kentucky’s weakness has been, though, is in the secondary. In UK’s three losses this season, they’ve allowed 11.5 yards per attempt, and have only recorded five interceptions as a unit this season. Yusuf Corker has been solid with eight pass breakups this season, which leads the team. Quandre Mosely and Carrington Valentine have five and four PBUs respectively, with Mosely being one of five UK players with an INT this season.
Players to Watch: LB J.J. Weaver (six sacks, ten TFLs); DE Josh Paschal (14.5 TFLs); LB DeAndre Square (73 tackles, nine TFLs)
Keys to the Game
- Louisville defense must prevent Kentucky from stretching the field vertically
It’s no secret that Louisville has struggled against teams that can throw the ball and stretch the field against them, and Kentucky has the players necessary to be able to pull that off.
Kentucky should be looking to stretch the field whenever possible, and don’t be surprised if a majority of those targets go to Robinson or Ali. Both guys account for 58 percent of Kentucky’s receptions, and 64 percent of their yardage. Robinson will naturally get a lot of targets because of his capability on the screen pass, but he has the speed to take it outside and reel in a deep ball. If Kentucky is able to get Ali more looks, Louisville is going to have a tough time stopping the Kentucky offense.
- Louisville offensive line must win the trenches against Kentucky
Kentucky’s front seven has been very good at stopping the run all season. They have held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry all season (sixth in SEC), and are fourth in rushing defense with 115 yards allowed per game.
However, Georgia and Tennessee were able to average over five yards per carry en route to wins over UK. FCS Chattanooga was also able to average 6.1 yards per carry and keep it close against the Wildcats. If Kentucky isn’t getting stops in the backfield, the defense has generally struggled as teams parlayed that into a successful passing game.
Thus, Louisville has to do what it has done (mostly) all season; establish the run, and parlay that into a big play-action game over the top. It will be a huge opportunity to see if Louisville has closed the gap on UK in the trenches (on both sides); but if Louisville can hang with Kentucky there, the opportunity is there for the Cardinals to score a ton of points.