Spread: Kentucky -3, O/U 43 (Bovada)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET
TV / Radio: SEC Network / 93.9 The Ville
Kentucky’s running game was the catalyst for their third straight blowout win over Louisville last year. The Wildcats rushed for 362 yards on 7.4 yards per carry, led by 100-yard games from running back Chris Rodriguez and quarterback Will Levis (the latter scoring four touchdowns on the ground). Kentucky only punted once and did not allow a sack, as the Wildcats cruised to a 52-21 victory over the Cardinals.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 18-15, and has won the last three games by at least 32 points.
Entering the Game: Kentucky
The Governor’s Cup win helped catapult Kentucky to its second 10-win season under head coach Mark Stoops, bookended by a Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.
Entering the 2022 season, Kentucky had expectations of possibly contending for the SEC East title and bringing in a repeat 10-win season. However, UK has fallen short of those expectations. The Wildcats enter the regular season finale with a 6-5 record, losing five of their last seven games after a 4-0 start, and reaching as high as seventh in the AP poll.
Kentucky Offense: What to Watch
The UK offense had two big losses in the offseason; wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson declared early for the NFL Draft after a record setting season, and offensive coordinator Liam Coen returned to the Los Angeles Rams to take the same position there. UK filled those gaps by hiring San Francisco 49ers quarterback coach Rich Scangarello to be the OC, and landed Tayvion Robinson in the transfer portal (via Virginia Tech).
But, they still returned two of their most important pieces to a successful season in Lexington; quarterback Will Levis, and running back Chris Rodriguez. How have they fared?
Let’s start with the quarterback, who many have touted as a potential first round draft pick this upcoming spring. Levis has had identical numbers to last season, completing approximately 66% of his passes on 8.4 yards per attempt and thrown 17 touchdowns. His physical attributes are definitely promising; he’s big (6’3″, 232 pounds), has a big arm that’s capable of hitting throws all over the field, and he’s a good athlete. If he has time in the pocket, Levis is definitely capable of shredding defenses when he is dialed in.
However, time in the pocket has been a huge issue with Levis. The Kentucky offensive line, normally a strength of the team in recent years, has been disappointing this season. Kentucky has allowed 40 sacks this season (second worst among Power Five schools), and Levis has been hindered by it. Levis has struggled with turnovers and injuries (ten interceptions this season and some costly fumbles), but the offensive line has hardly done him any favors this season.
When Levis does have time, though, he does have a solid cast of receivers. Tayvion Robinson was a huge get in the transfer portal, and he is an athlete in the slot. He’s a great route runner and can get separation on routes. Dane Key and Barion Brown have been really good as freshman receivers, also. Key (28 rec., 435 yards, five TDs) is capable of making big time catches in traffic and has a nice catch radius. Brown is unbelievably fast and that especially shows in his role as Kentucky’s primary returner, he’ll put a lot of pressure on Louisville’s special teams to execute at a high level on Saturday.
Kentucky’s primary M.O. on offense, though, has always been the running game under Stoops. That hasn’t changed since Chris Rodriguez returned from a four-game suspension earlier this season. He’s a bruiser as a runner, and can get tough yardage inside. Rodriguez has been superb in his two games against the Cardinals, rushing for 246 yards and two touchdowns on almost ten yards per carry in that span. Rodriguez doesn’t possess breakaway speed once he gets to the second level, but guys like Ju’Tahn McClain and Kavosiey Smoke definitely fill that niche for UK. McClain has the ability to be a solid third-down back with his receiving ability, but it hasn’t translated to much success for UK on that end.
Key Players: QB Will Levis (66% completion, 8.4 YPA, 17-10 TD-INT ratio); RB Chris Rodriguez (112 rushing yards per game, 5.2 yards per carry, six touchdowns); WR Barion Brown (41 rec., 560 yards, four all-purpose touchdowns)
Kentucky Defense: What to Watch
Defensive coordinator Brad White deserves a lot of credit for the work he’s done since arriving at Kentucky in 2019. Under his guidance, UK has finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense in three of his four years there. This is also amazing considering UK’s defense has only produced one first round draft pick in that span (linebacker Jamin Davis).
Overall, this defense is one that plays extremely well as far as sticking to fundamentals, and understanding their assignments. Louisville’s offense might need to have its best game of the season, whether it’s Malik Cunningham or Brock Domann at quarterback, to end their losing streak to Kentucky.
The Kentucky front seven hasn’t yielded much fruit as far as creating chaos (just 15 sacks in 11 games), but they have playmakers all over. JJ Weaver and Jordan Wright are really athletic edge guys that can get to the quarterback, Wright himself leads the team in TFLs (eight). Freshman Deone Walker (33 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) has had a solid season inside and could be another star in waiting for UK. There is a chance that senior linebacker DeAndre Square returns to action on Saturday, and if so, that is a huge boost for Kentucky. Square is the leader of the defense and flies everywhere on the field. He’s well rounded but he really excels as a run stopper, he’ll be the most important player trying to stop Louisville’s zone run scheme.
Kentucky’s secondary was already pretty solid with cornerback Carrington Valentine (42 tackles, nine PBUs, INT) and safety Tyrell Aljan (31 tackles, two PBUs, two forced fumbles) returning, but they got a huge boost in the portal with landing Ole Miss defensive back Keidron Smith. Smith is sticky in coverage and a playmaker in every sense.
Key Players: EDGE Jordan Wright (eight TFLs, 52 tackles); LB DeAndre Square (55 tackles in eight games); CB Keidron Smith (36 tackles, five PBUs, two INTs)
Keys to the Game
- Louisville’s running game will need to thrive
In Kentucky’s five losses this season, one common trend has been UK’s inability to contain the opponent’s running game. Vanderbilt and Georgia rushed for over 240 yards in UK’s last two losses, both teams averaging over five yards per carry. UK is allowing five yards per carry in their losses, but just 3.5 in wins. That’s a very significant stat against a Louisville rushing attack that is currently second in the ACC (196.6 yards per game).
If Malik Cunningham is able to play, that would be huge for Louisville’s chances. He adds a running threat from the quarterback spot that Kentucky has struggled against at times, most notably against Vanderbilt. Otherwise, Louisville will need to be able to block effectively, especially against UK’s sizable edge rushers.
- Can Louisville special teams play their best game?
Like last week, I expect this game to be tight and it’s going to come down to a few key plays late. However, also like last week (and one point that I completely did not mention in last week’s piece), I think special teams is going to play a huge factor in this one.
Louisville’s punting game has been very solid this season, ranking third in the ACC with 44.6 yards per punt. Pinning Kentucky deep in their own territory is going to be crucial to not only forcing Kentucky off the field, but also giving their offense a short field to work with (provided Louisville forces UK off the field early in the drive).
Louisville has also been solid in kickoff coverage all season, but they haven’t had to contain a guy like Barion Brown at any point this year. Keeping Kentucky from getting a big play on special teams would help their chances.
- Louisville will need to bottle up Kentucky’s receivers
I highlighted Rodriguez’s success against Louisville in the last two games of the rivalry, but I think the key for Louisville winning is to keep UK from having a successful vertical passing game. UK has playmakers at wide receivers, and all three of their key guys (Key, Brown, Robinson) are capable of stretching the field. Louisville’s losses have all been highlighted by their struggles in limiting big plays, and Levis certainly has the arm capable of testing Louisville’s secondary.