Five Questions: Kentucky at Louisville
By Matt Smith
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While most of the rivalry’s finest moments have occurred on the hardwood, the gridiron is also a battleground for two schools who simply don’t like each other.
The heated rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville will have a new chapter written on Sunday when the Wildcats make the journey up I-64 to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to tackle the projected Big East champion Cardinals. While most of the rivalry’s finest moments have occurred on the hardwood, most recently at the Final Four in March, the gridiron is also a battleground for two schools who simply don’t like each other. Louisville snapped a four-game losing streak in the series last year with a 24-17 win in Lexington. The Cardinals will be looking for their first home win over Kentucky since 2006 on Sunday afternoon. Let’s dive into five questions that will help decide whether those in red or those in blue will have bragging rights for the next 365 days in the Commonwealth.
Kentucky at Louisville
Sunday, 3:30 ET
TV: ESPN (Carter Blackburn and Rod Gilmore)
1. How big of a jump will Teddy Bridgewater make in Year 2?
The Miami native who spurned his hometown program after head coach Randy Shannon was fired after the 2010 season appears on his way to stardom in Louisville. The sophomore quarterback’s first significant action occurred last year against Kentucky in which he threw for a pair of touchdowns, helping the Cardinals to victory. It was Bridgewater’s job the rest of the season, which although bumpy, ended with the Cardinals sharing the Big East title and Bridgewater throwing for five touchdowns in the final two games.
The combination of a year under his belt and the loss of leading rusher Victor Anderson will place more of a burden on Bridgewater this season. His physical abilities have never been questioned, and with almost 300 throws under his belt now, Bridgewater should be up to the task. His mobility coupled with good size at 6’3” will present a lot of problems for a retooled Kentucky defense. Another plus for Bridgewater – he’ll be playing behind an offensive line with 72 career starts.
2. Has Kentucky found a playmaker on offense?
To be blunt, no. If there’s one thing that can suck the life out of a fanbase as much as losing, it’s struggling offensively. Kentucky did both of those last year, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2005 while finishing 118th of 120 FBS teams in total offense, 114th in passing. The Wildcats started three different quarterbacks last season, including wide receiver Matt Roark in the finale, a 10-7 win over Tennessee. Sophomore Maxwell Smith, who started four games a year ago, outlasted 2011 opening day starter Morgan Newton this fall for the starting role.
His top receiver is senior La’Rod King, who caught seven of the team’s 12 receiving touchdowns last season. King’s season high of seven catches last year came in the loss to Louisville. He’s a big body who can be effective in the red zone, but neither King nor any of his cohorts have the speed to turn short passes into long gains. Out of the backfield, expect senior CoShik Williams and sophomore Raymond Sanders to share carries. Both are small and have decent speed, but are undersized for SEC-caliber running backs.
3. Will the rivalry’s trend of close games continue?
Moving the game to Sunday should give the rivalry more of a spotlight as opposed to having it buried on a busy Saturday afternoon. Four of the last five meetings have been decided by one score or less after a long stretch of blowouts in the mid-2000s. Kentucky’s dramatic 40-34 upset of the ninth-ranked Cardinals in 2007 helped turn the rivalry back in the ‘Cats favor, and ended up being a microcosm of the failed Steve Kragthorpe era at Louisville.
With both teams’ offenses still works in progress (Kentucky’s much more so than Louisville’s), it seems likely that we’ll have another low-scoring struggle. On paper, this seems like a 10-14 point win for the home team, but rivalry games are different animals. In the lone blowout in the past five years, a 27-2 Kentucky romp in 2008, Louisville was a three-point favorite.
4. Are Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy replaceable?
Trevathan may have been the most underappreciated player in the SEC over the past two years, leading the league in tackles in both seasons. He unfathomably slipped to the sixth round of the NFL Draft (ok, he is only 6’0”), but the hole the linebacker leaves in the Wildcats defense is far greater than a typical sixth-round pick. Sophomore Tyler Brause, who played in 11 games last year, steps in for Trevathan on the weak side. He’s bigger than his predecessor at 6’4”, but the drop-off at the position will be the most noticeable of any position on the team.
Guy thrived last year in a new hybrid role that fit his combination of speed and ability and desire to hit, finishing behind only Trevathan in tackles on both the team and in the entire SEC. His role now belongs to sophomore Miles Simpson, who had only five tackles last season. Kentucky hung around with a number of teams it shouldn’t have last year thanks to Trevathan and Guy. The Cardinals are a team Kentucky should at least be competitive with. If they’re not, look no further than the absence of the two tackling machines.
5. How close is Charlie Strong’s Louisville defense to his Florida defenses?
While it’s unlikely that the talent level can ever match that of Strong’s 2008 and 2009 Florida defenses that included the likes of Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins, Strong’s emphasis on defense has helped propel the Cardinals to the forefront of the Big East. He’s done it mostly with players he recruited, as eight starters return from last year’s team, with only two seniors in the starting lineup.
Safety Hakeem Smith would start at nearly SEC school. Cornerback Adrian Bushell, a former Strong pupil at Florida before transferring, would likely do the same for most of the league’s teams. Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford run an aggressive style of defense that resulted in five sacks against Kentucky last year. It’s not a complete defense yet, but it’s worlds away from the defenses under Kragthorpe that allowed over 29 points per game in three years.
Bonus: Who wins?
This won’t be a thing of beauty, but it should adequately fill the void for football fans on the final Sunday before the start of the NFL season. Kentucky’s line play will keep this game closer than many are projecting it to be, but the elite playmakers will be wearing red and will be the difference in a narrow victory for the Cardinals. It won’t cool the seat of Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, but should at least give the Wildcats some confidence at the beginning of a bear of a schedule. Louisville 22, Kentucky 17.