As unpredictable as the upcoming Kentucky versus Louisville game seems, I feel there are a few key battles that UK must win in order to secure a victory in the war. Looking at positional comparisons, UK seems to have an edge all over the field, except at quarterback. And of course U of L has the good fortune of hosting this years contest. Other than those two areas, which are important, Kentucky has the competitive advantage.
Competitive advantage, though, is not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for what UK has to do in order to win ... period. As I see it, if Kentucky executes the following aspects of the game plan, they will spend Sunday evening happily retelling their family, friends, and media members how they beat the University of E - Ville.
Dominate with Defense Part 1 -- Bringin' the heat
The number one key to this game is not Hunter Cantwell, the running game, the receivers, Rich Brooks, or Steve Kragthorpe, it's UK's defense. Kentucky's defense must live up to the hype it has received from the coaching staff, and eternally optimistic folks like me.
UK defensive tackle Corey Peters has definite ideas about how he plans to attack:
"I think pressure is very important, especially in the first game of the season. They're probably not going to be completely in sync right off the bat. I think it's important to not let them get into that ( rhythm ). I think it's very important to get pressure with the front four so we don't really have to blitz."
Hunter Cantwell must feel the Blue heat. I want him to be reminded of the hell Dave Ragone went through in 2002 ( 14 - 39 for 193 yards ). Ragone ( who was thought to be a candidate for the Heisman ) left that UK victory in dire need of medical attention, and thoroughly familiar with the alignment of the stars in the sky. He was battered and beaten, and looked it, especially late in the game. Young Mr. Cantwell needs a refresher course in what Myron Pryor, Braxton Kelley, Corey Peters, Micah Johnson and Company are capable of putting a quarterback through. If not, Cantwell is certainly talented enough to find and hit his receivers with strikes, which then puts the pressure to perform on the secondary, which always makes me nervous ( flashes of '02 LSU dance through my head ).
Kentucky's defensive line ( it's best unit ) must gain penetration on U of L's offensive line. "Well, that's no problem," the uninformed UK fan may think. But, Louisville is returning two very important cogs off of last years O-line: Center Eric Wood ( 1st Team All-Big East, he's also on the Outland and Remington Trophy watch lists ), and OT George Bussey, himself an Outland candidate. The rest of the O-line is makeshift and inexperienced, but they aren't going to just roll-over by themselves, they're going to need a little help.
Since I question whether Cantwell will be taking many seven-step drops, scanning the field for open receivers, UK's line must pressure him quickly. Hopefully the results are hastily thrown balls, which are much more likely to be off-target, and/or intercepted. Give him time, or relax on the rush, and he's capable of executing the pin-point pass to a covered receiver.
UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown sounded cautionary regarding pressuring Cantwell:
"It's always important to get pressure on the quarterback, but you can't go into a game just thinking, 'Get a lot of pressure,' because they do an excellent job of running draws. You have to be smart, see what the tempo of the game is and at that point make a decision about how you want to attack him."
Coach, as long as you "attack him," I'm with you.
Dominate with Defense Part 2 -- Stopping the run
The U of L running game will be relying on one proven commodity in senior fullback Brock Bolen, and two less experienced, yet talented backs to run the ball ( Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson ). Once again, UK's defense must gain penetration in order to 'meet and greet' the Cardinal ball carriers in the backfield. All three of the U of L running backs are capable of having big games, with running back Powell ( 206 yards on 24 carries ) possessing the most speed of the three. I highly doubt that new offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm will be sending his backs up the gut of UK's D-line, so ends Ventrell Jenkins and Jeremy Jarmon, along with strong and weakside linebackers Johnny Williams and Braxton Kelley will be responsible for plugging holes before they open.
Containing Louisville's ground game does three things: It puts more pressure on Cantwell, it keeps U of L from controlling the clock, and most importantly, it makes Louisville's offense one-dimensional. And a one-dimensional offense is more often than not an unhappy offense, because they tend to lose more than they win. Just ask Barry Sanders.
Dominate with Defense Part 3 -- Embarrass the receivers
Cornerback Trevard Lindley had this thought when asked about covering U of L's young receivers:
"I think we've got to get on their receivers early so they don't have any confidence."
Louisville's starting receivers, Troy Pascley and Doug Beaumont have caught exactly zero passes at the collegiate level. Sophomore tight end Pete Nochta ( also zero career receptions ) will be replacing the excellent Gary Barnidge ( now with the Carolina Panthers ). Trevard Lindley, David Jones, Ashton Cobb and Marcus McClinton should be licking their chops in anticipation. I'm not meaning to imply that they should be over-confident, one must always respect ones opponent, but they have an opportunity Sunday to dominate a group of inexperienced receivers. Generally speaking, young receivers are trying to concentrate on running the right routes and being in the right spots, on time. If UK's Lindley and Jones get physical ( no, not the Olivia Newton-John type 'physical' ), and jam U of L's wide-outs at the line of scrimmage, that should throw off the rhythm of the young receiving corps, and it will also make them think, instead of react. And a thinking receiver, is usually a beat receiver.
There will be no more of a greater mismatch on the field Sunday than UK's secondary versus U of L's receivers. There simply will be no excuse for one of the Cards gettin' off like Harry Douglas did last year ( 13 catches for 223 yards ).
Field position is determined by three factors; punting, turnovers, and returns. Last year U of L was overly generous early in the game by putting the ball into UK's hands, resulting in UK enjoying a short field; on the Kentucky kick-off U of L put the ball on the ground on their own 20 yard line, resulting in a UK field goal. A few minutes later a Brian Brohm interception gave UK the ball on U of L's 18 yard line, resulting in a touchdown. The best field position that U of L started with that lovely day was their own 37 yard line. Hence, the importance of field position.
Kentucky must hold on to the ball, and Tim Masthay must be consistent with his punts ( he allowed only a 6.0 yard return average last year ). Masthay pinning U of L deep in their own territory will only make it more difficult for the young Louisville offense to put points on the board. And if Kentucky's defense can hold them to short yardage in those situations, UK will be looking at getting the ball back with a short field themselves.
Masthay is the king of touchbacks, leading the SEC with 23 last year. One never knows when a break down will occur in special teams coverage allowing a long return, so that fact cannot be overstated. His continued strong-leg displays on kick-offs are vital to ensuring that U of L starts with the ball on their own 20, instead of up-field.
The return game is very unpredictable. Dicky Lyons and Randall Cobb will be handling most of the return work. My only anticipation is for them to not turn the ball over. Anything more than that, such as a long return, is gravy on momma's taters.
Since I anticipate a close game, Seiber is deserving of his own heading.
UK's kicker has not exactly enamored himself with Rich Brooks in fall practice. He's been inconsistent; missing chip-shots, but making a 52 yard field goal. Seiber performed well for most of last year, but he faltered at the end of the season, missing four of his last five attempts.
Nothing is more frustrating to a coach ( ask Bobby Bowden ), a fan ( ask me ), or a teammate ( ask Peyton Manning ) than an unsteady kicker. So in the interest of sanity in the Bluegrass, please Lones, be dead-eye.
Ball game givens
In my mind, there are a couple of aspects to UK's game that are givens:
- Mike Hartline will be 'uneven': It's the kids first start, on the road, versus U of L, and he has only one experienced receiver ( plus tight end Maurice Grinter ). If he's anything more than 'uneven,' color me shocked. What he can't do though, is turn the ball over. All I'm looking for at this point in the season is for him to not hurt the teams chances at winning. If he can make the screen pass, and the 10-15 yard slant ( and the occasional deep ball ), do just enough to keep Louisville's defense from putting eight guys in the box, then he'll be doing his job.
- UK's running game: Tony Dixon, Derrick Locke, Alfonso Smith and Moncell Allen should collectively, have a big day. They will be running against a defense that pined to be considered porous last year. They will also be facing three new linebackers, one of which is a freshman. There will be no excuses to be had if they fail to eat up chunks of yardage; they should control the clock, keeping U of L's defense on the field for extended periods of time. By the fourth quarter their legs should still be fresh, and easy yards should be there for all to enjoy.
I think it is very possible that junior tight end Maurice Grinter could have a big day. He's experienced, has soft hands, can run well ( he was a basketball star at Fairdale ), and run over just about anyone who decides to take him on. Grinter is extremely athletic, and is capable of turning a short pass into a long gain. With an abundance of 'green' receivers, Joker Phillips may decide to utilize Grinter as a relief-valve for Hartline, as well as in goal-line situations as a change of pace from the running backs.
I think this game is tilted toward a UK victory. Kentucky's defense, if they perform up to expectations, should go a long way in securing victory.
Final score -- UK -- 27 U of L -- 23
Sunday is my mother, Linda's, 29th birthday ( or so she says ). So, Happy Birthday mom, I love ya!
Thanks for reading, Go 'Cats!, beat Louisville!