I love the Labor Day holiday. It could not have come at a better time for me. It signals the end of a long, hot summer and carries with it the promise of a wonderful fall.
When the game versus the Louisville Cardinals is the very first game, it gives a weird feel to the season for me. Season openers are supposed to be games in which teams play lesser foes and start to shake off the pre-season rust. The Louisville game, to me, feels a bit like playing a mini-bowl bowl game at the beginning of the season, and it has a desperation about it that you don't normally expect to feel in the first game. Like Joker Phillips said -- you can have a good season if you lose to Louisville, but you can't have a great one.
Before we completely part with the Governor's Cup, I have been thinking a bit about the future of this series. Despite the loss, Charlie Strong looks like the coach who will turn the fortunes of the Cardinals back in a positive direction. Louisville played hard and mostly pretty well, but when you are out-talented, you must play great to win, or hope the opponent plays poorly. Neither one came true for the Cardinals, and despite a number of problems, Kentucky played well enough to win.
What were the problems? A couple of defensive breakdowns, special teams performance, brain-dead penalties that killed Kentucky's drives or extended Louisville's. I think we all know what plays I mean. I chalk up these miscues to the inevitable rust, both physical and mental, and expect to see much of it fixed in practice.
The big controversy now two days removed from the game is Mike Hartline's play. Kentucky fans are lining up in two camps when it comes to Hartline: "He played a great game, leave him alone!" and "He still can't throw the football downfield!" Both positions have something to recommend them -- Hartline played very well in the sense that he played like a senior. Hartline did not throw the football into trouble, for the most part. He made several very heady plays under pressure, and he did not try to do things of which he is incapable.
On the other hand, he had two routes get jumped by inferior defensive players, and threw a couple of balls that likely would have gone the other way if the foe had been more talented. That does not inspire confidence, merely for the reason that we know his arm is not that strong and his past tendency to throw floaters on longer passes does not seem to have been resolved. But perhaps it was just rust ... it was the first game of the season, after all. If he gets better, the BBN will fall in line behind him, although he will always seemingly have his detractors.
More after the jump.
The other controversy was a claim by some of the Cardinal fans and supporters that John Calipari was trying to get the attention of the Louisville basketball recruits in attendance. Aside from the inherent absurdity of such a suggestion, it has the benefit of giving Kentucky fans something to laugh and scoff at Louisville fans about.
If Calipari wanted Louisville's recruits, he could have them at any time -- he is the best recruiter in college basketball, and that is a fact. Marquis Teague is proof of that, if the Louisville fans need any. Chill out, Card fans. Hope you get some good ones. We already have the best recruiting class in the nation, and nothing you can do will change that. It's not wise to provide your major rivals with unintended fodder with which to mock you with.
Be that as it may, the Cardinals are now in the rear-view mirror, and seemingly without any more than bumps and bruises, not to mention the fourth victory in a row over a loathsome rival. As memories of the 2010 Governor's Cup game recede, we can now begin the season in earnest with the knowledge that Kentucky will once again have bragging rights in the Commonwealth.
Now, it's time to look forward. The next two games for Kentucky are against lesser foes, Western Kentucky and Akron. Western just hired a new football coach in the off-season, Willie Taggert, a star for the Hilltoppers back in the mid-1990's. Taggert was hired away from Stanford University, where he was the running backs coach.
Western is a newly-minted Division I university, and as such is still struggling to find a grove. With Taggert in place, I expect that recruiting for the Hilltoppers will now greatly improve, and I think Western will soon become a much more competitive program.
For now, though, Kentucky is far more talented and experienced than Western, and this game is a mismatch, if not as big a mismatch as two years ago when Kentucky won 41-3. Last year, Western failed to put a game in the win column, but figure to be a bit better this year. As we saw in the Miami (OH) vs. Florida game where Miami, despite winning only one game last year, teams that have bad years can come back and be unexpectedly competitive if the superior team fails to execute.
Last year, Western Kentucky was third from last in Division I in rushing defense, 118th out of 120. If they are within 50 spots of that bad again this year, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke will have Heisman-like games, and the score will get ugly early. The best thing about a game like that is that if it happens, we will likely get to see Morgan Newton and/or Ryan Mossakowski for a couple of series at some point, and that's something I really want to watch.
We'll have more on the Western game as the week goes on. Enjoy your Labor Day.