It seems everyone, from the good folks in Las Vegas, to the local and national media, are picking against the 'Cats in their upcoming epic battle for the Governor's Cup. I suppose I can understand why the knee-jerk reaction is to pick Louisville to win this years contest. After-all, the game is being played at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and UK will be starting an unproven quarterback. Add the fact that Kentucky lacks experience at the receiver slot, except for the talented Dicky Lyons, and one can reasonably assess the game as a U of L lean. But if one analyzes the contest and a few key personnel a bit closer, a converse conclusion can easily be arrived upon.
I like Eric Crawford. The Courier-Journal sports columnist is generally not dogmatic, that is, he backs up his opinions with some form of fact. As is true with anyone who puts out opinions three or four times a week, I don't always agree with his assertions, but I don't always agree with any writer's opinions 100% of the time.
This past Sunday Mr. Crawford penned a fairly even-handed column in which he put forth his prediction for the UK v. U of L game, along with his reasoning for reaching his final conclusion. His logic seems to follow that of most of the national media, as well as some local media members, concerning the game and its possible outcome. Because of this I am going to use his column, and his points, as the basis for my rebuttal to those who opine that U of L will come out victorious Sunday evening.
His assertions begin with an historical perspective:
"And the biggest one ( reason ) is the way UK historically has played in its season opener under Rick Brooks, which is to say, not at all well."
"Brooks has never beaten U of L in an opener. But more than that, in four years of playing the Cardinals in the first game, his UK teams have managed just one first-quarter touchdown. And they weren't facing blockbuster U of L defenses, either."
Well, that's a shocker. In Brooks' first two years on the job UK went a combined 6 - 17. Those teams were ... I'm being kind here ... terrible. Of course they didn't play well in the first game, they didn't play well in ANY game. But, in Brooks third season UK went 3 - 8, and almost managed to upset the Cards, losing only 31 - 24. If not for an Andre' Woodson fumble on the U of L two yard line, that game could have very easily swung the other way.
There is no denying that Louisville has had, previous to last season, a far superior team over the last several years. Using UK's poor performances in some of those games as a yardstick by which to measure this years game is flawed logic. Actually it's not flawed logic, the assertion lacks logic altogether. One has nothing whatsoever to do with the other.
He next confronts the all important ground game:
"For eight straight years, the winning team's top rusher out-gained the entire opposing team. Rafael Little did that last year."
"Because both teams figure to use multiple backs, that streak might be in jeopardy. But let's say that UK's defensive line -- it best unit -- stuffs the U of L run. Now the Wildcats are free to try to control things with their own running game, something their talented backfield is capable of doing. But they can do that only if they can keep U of L honest through the air, and that's a shaky proposition."
Can UK keep Louisville's defense honest through the air? Finally, a legitimate point from Mr. Crawford.
Considering U of L returns eight starters from last years porous defense, I think it's fair to evaluate the job they did last year pressuring the passer: Last season Louisville recorded 17 sacks in 12 games, to go along with seven interceptions ( they also allowed 25 touchdown passes, and 251 yards per game through the air ). Not fear inspiring numbers, even if Mike Hartline has yet to start a single college game. UK's experienced offensive line figures to be inundated with blitz's and stunts all day long, and their ability to handle the Cards pass rushers ( U of L will be starting three new linebackers ) will go a long way in determining how effective Hartline is in the vertical game.
To offset Hartline's inexperience I'm sure Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips will utilize the pass catching abilities of the running backs. Tony Dixon, Alfonso Smith, and Derrick Locke should prove to be valuable 'relief valves' for a pressured Hartline. Getting those guys loose in the secondary is of vital importance to UK's offensive attack, but if U of L proves quick to cover and swarm ( which they didn't do last year ) then Kentucky's offense could become one dimensional. Which of course would be problematic for the boys in blue.
Kentucky's inexperienced receiving corps is the wild card in this game, as far as the 'Cats are concerned. Hartline will be relying on receivers Dicky Lyons, Kyrus Lanxter, E.J. Adams, Eric Adeyemi, Eugene McCaskill, and Matt Roark to run the right routes, and make the catch. Tight end Maurice Grinter will also be relied upon to make a few catches. Grinter, who is a terrific athlete, has very soft hands and has demonstrated an ability to catch, and then make yards after the catch with his speed, and willingness to plow through defenders. Back-up tight end T. C. Drake has only one career catch ( for a TD ), but will also be an important target for Hartline to aim for.
Is hoping for UK's passing game to keep the defense honest through the air too much to ask for? Not if the receivers are asked to run intermediate routes of 15 - 20 yards. Hartline's accuracy with the deep ball is shaky at this point, but he can make the nice throw over the middle. Couple that with the running backs catching balls in the flat, and Kentucky's passing game should be adequate.
So to answer Mr. Crawford's question, yes, I feel that Kentucky's passing game will be strong enough to open up the running lanes for the trio of stud backs ( quartet if one includes Moncell Allen ). If U of L stacks eight men in the box in an attempt to stuff the run, they'll pay the price all day long.
Crawford then moves to Hunter Cantwell:
"The Cardinals, meanwhile, have one thing in the game that might be most important, experience at quarterback."
Louisville does boast a more experienced signal-caller. The former walk-on and Paducah Tilghman grad, when called upon, has played well for the Cards over the last three years. My concern though, if I were a U of L fan, is who he has played against.
His career stats look like this: 92 - 157 for 1,419 yards, with 10 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He has four career starts.
Cantwell's finest hour came in Louisville's '05 Gator Bowl loss to Virginia Tech. He threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns, earning game Co-MVP honors. But other than that game, Cantwell's numbers have been achieved against less-than-stellar competition:
- 2005 versus a 5 - 6 UConn team: 16 - 25 for 271 yards and one touchdown.
- 2006 versus a 7 - 6 Kansas State team: 18 - 26 for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
- 2006 versus a 7 - 6 Middle Tennessee State team: 17 - 32 for 340 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Those three games account for over half of Cantwell's career yardage ( 784 of 1,419 yards ).
In all of those games he also had either Mike Bush ( UConn ), Mario Urrutia ( all three ), Harry Douglas ( all three ), Kolby Smith ( K-State and MTSU ), or Joshua Tinch ( UConn ) running for him, or catching his passes. This year he has no such weapons available. With the dismissal of receiver JaJuan Spillman, the near tragic shooting of receiver Trent Guy ( he will probably play at some point this year ), and the broken foot of receiver Scott Long, Cantwell is left with zero receivers who have caught a pass in a college game ( and you thought UK had wide-out issues ).
I think Cantwell is a fine quarterback, but his accomplishments need to be put into perspective.
Crawford wraps up his analysis with this:
"UK has the better defense, and probably the better running game. It should also have a special-teams advantage. And unlike in past years, the speed factor is beginning to turn in UK's favor."
"But U of L has Cantwell, home field and perhaps more urgency, certainly more pressure to win."
"UK has ... probably the better running game." -- I nominate Eric for the 'Understatement of the Year Pulitzer'. PROBABLY, he's right.
Although U of L does boast Brock Bolen at running back ( 456 career yards and a 5.2 yards per carry average ), Kentucky's abundance of talented backs should prove to be a huge advantage, especially if the game is tight in the fourth quarter ( which I think it will be ).
Basically Crawford, as well as many others, are basing their prognostications on Cantwell's abilities, and U of L's "pressure to win." The whole "pressure to win" contention is a bogus argument; I bet Ohio State felt "pressure to win" the last two national championship games, but they were disemboweled in both. In my view, one reaches for "pressure to win" when one has no other bullets.
If one notices, Crawford only mentions UK's defense as an afterthought. That is a monumental mistake, in my opinion. With UK's defensive line and linebackers pressuring Cantwell, and UK's superb secondary covering the inexperienced U of L receivers, I feel that Kentucky's defense will be the difference maker in this game. Keep in mind, it's difficult to throw from ones backside, and it's hard to throw to blanketed receivers.
I can see only two areas where Louisville will have the advantage Sunday: at quarterback, and having home field advantage. But remember, the quarterback advantage may be offset by UK's defensive pressure, and U of L's lack of any experience at the receiver spot. There's not a lot Rich Brooks can do about the home field advantage. But, knowing U of L fans proclivity to run for the exits when things seem bleak, if UK can race to a lead, the home field may be rendered moot.
Crawford ends with a prediction: 31 - 21, Louisville. He offers up a disclaimer, though:
"But I make that pick with all of the confidence I have in my lottery numbers."
I agree. Rivalry games, especially early season rivalry games, can be very unpredictable, and with the profusion of question marks masquerading as players, this years contest is laborious to handicap.
My prediction? Well, that's gonna have to wait until Friday.
Thanks for reading, 'Believe in Blue', and BEAT LOUISVILLE!