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Kentucky vs. Louisville: No Excuses Edition

With Kentucky gearing up to face the Louisville Cardinals at Pizza Hut Commonwealth Stadium ... uh, rather, just plain ol' Commonwealth Stadium, it struck me that this year is the first UK vs. U of L game since 1998 that the 'Cats should be a large betting favorite to win, and win big.  Am I overconfident?  Am I delusional?  Maybe so.  I'll let you, the faithful reader make that determination after you peruse my four reasons UK will pummel the Evil Birds on Saturday afternoon.

What will serve as an appetizer for A Sea of Blue's coverage of the battle for the Governor's Cup may not be bacon-wrapped shrimp, but it's a start.

1. The Louisville defense -- Other than senior linebacker Jon Dempsey (a team high 80 tackles last year), U of L's defense is full of junior college transfers (5) and inexperienced starters who have displayed an alarming propensity to lose to teams with less talent (see Syracuse last season, and some might argue Rutgers and UConn).  Although the Cardinal defense held Indiana State to 101 yards of total offense in U of L's season-opening 30-10 victory, the Sycamores are one of the worst college football teams in America: Playing out of the Missouri Valley Conference, and going back to 2005, Larry Bird's Alma mater is 1 - 47 over their last 48 contests.

More to the point: Playing with a more experienced defense in 2008, the Cards gave up (on the road): 63 points to Rutgers, 41 to Pitt, 28 to Syracuse, and 28 to Memphis.  With the improvement of UK quarterback Mike Hartline, the addition of wide receiver Chris Matthews, along with the reappearance of a filthy, greasy-quick Derrick Locke.  Also, Randall Cobb who can now concentrate on receiving the ball, and the occasional "Wildcat Package," will be a much more dangerous performer versus Louisville than he was in 2008.  To me, this amounts to UK having a razor sharp edge when comparing U of L's defense with the Wildcat offense. 

Simply put, holding Kentucky to under 30 points will be a monumental undertaking for these Cards and their defensive coordinator Brent Guy. So, my bottom line reads like this -- If UK limits turnovers and penalties, I fully expect to see the UK side of the scoreboard receive some much needed exercise.

2. The Louisville offense -- By the middle of the season Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich is going to wish he hadn't foolishly fought so desperately to have this game played early in the year.  For U of L's offense, with a dash of seasoning for quarterback Justin Burke (a Lexington Catholic alum), should be a strength for the Cardinals.  And there is no doubt the inexperienced Burke is surrounded by talent, although much of that talent is either coming off major injuries, or simply young. 

Running backs Victor Anderson (St. Xavier) and Bilal Powell, receiver Doug Beaumont (Male), receiver Scott Long (coming off a broken foot in '08), and speedster receiver Trent Guy (coming off a gun shot injury) are all capable of making big plays, but quarterback Burke has played only one game (versus Indiana State) in the last two-plus years.  A fact quite apparent in Louisville's initial contest.  It may seem like excuse making, but offensive chemistry is vitally important to a team's success, and in their first game of the year, the Cards lacked the requisite cohesiveness to play like a team capable of challenging UK.

Adding to the concern Steve Kragthorpe must be feeling about now are the 14 penalties U of L committed against the Sycamores, eight of which occurred on the offensive side of the ball.  First game, last game ... 14 penalties is simply an inexcusable number, especially against a team U of L held a tremendous physical advantage over.  Can Louisville find, over the course of their off week, the necessary discipline needed to compete against UK's defense?  Don't hold your breath.

Finally, due to Burke's understandable rust, and enough penalties to make Conrad Dobler blush, the U of L offense lit up the scoreboard to the tune of only 30 points on a team that has given up an average of 43.3 points per game over the last four seasons.  No, the Sycamores haven't played Florida, Texas, or Oklahoma, instead, they've allowed teams such as Western Illinois, Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois, and Western Kentucky to roll up numbers Steve Spurrier has pined for since he mistakenly fled the friendly confines of The Swamp.

In a nutshell, my point is this -- If U of L can only score 30 on Indiana State (for whatever reason), what are the chances of the Cards scoring the necessary 25-30 points they'll need to win Saturday?  Your mileage may vary, but in my view, the Louisville offense has a long way to go, and a short time to get there.

3.  Justin Burke/U of L receivers vs. the Wildcat Secondary -- I can remember, not so long ago, watching opposing wide outs race pass UK's secondary, on their way to six.  Thankfully, those days are behind us, at least for now.

The Kentucky secondary is now blessed with speed, and perhaps even more importantly this game, size.  Corner back Trevard Lindley is 6'0", free safety Matt Lentz is 6'3", corner back Randall Burden is 6'0", safety Winston Guy is 6'1", and strong safety Calvin Harrison is 6'1".  My point?  U of L has speed at the receiver spot, but they are mighty-mites -- Trent Guy is 5'9", Doug Beaumont is 5'9", running back Victor Anderson (who catches passes out of the backfield) is 5'9".  Scott Long, at 6'2", is the only regular Louisville receiver who can stand tall with UK's secondary.

And if you don't think size + speed matters in the secondary, check the tapes of games UK played against Florida in the mid- to late-90's.  The visual images you will witness are quite telling, and from the UK perspective, quite unpleasant. 

The size advantage the 'Cats hold only tell half the story, though.  The other half of the tale includes the fact that UK's secondary is the most talented conglomeration of defensive backs to roam the turf of Commonwealth Stadium, possibly ever.  And after witnessing the aggressive, smothering form they took after the first quarter of the Miami game, I was left feeling confident that opposing signal-callers must be sure-of-mind, and acutely accurate in order to consistently inflict damage on the 'Cats' chances at victory.

Quarterback Burke, who went 17-31 through the air, with two interceptions and zero touchdowns against Indiana State, looked neither.  Which is certainly understandable considering his extended layoff, but that only brings rise to the question: Will he become more comfortable, more at ease, and less hesitant during U of L's week off?  And if Burke does succeed in bettering his game, will he, after throwing a pass that results in a pick, revert to the unsure pocket passer he was in Louisville's first game?  

Lots of questions, few answers.  Not a pleasant position to find oneself in while preparing to face a hated rival on the road.  A hated rival with defensive talent at the ready, and a fan base foaming with frothy anticipation of a legitimate beat-down of a program once considered to be a legend ... in their own minds. 

4. 27 - 2 -- The score of last season's Governor's Cup contest might seem irrelevant, and it probably is, but I can't help but come back to this -- Last year, U of L played Kentucky at home, with a new starting quarterback in Hunter Cantwell; this year, U of L plays Kentucky on the road, with once again, a new starting quarterback.  Last year, U of L played Kentucky at home, against a defense superior to the Cardinal offense; this year, U of L plays Kentucky on the road, against a defense seemingly superior to the Cardinal offense.  Last year, U of L played Kentucky at home, while the 'Cats broke-in a new quarterback; this year, U of L plays Kentucky on the road, while the 'Cats sport a significantly improved, and more experienced quarterback.  Last year, U of L lost to Kentucky, at home, 27-2; this year U of L ... 

Of course, Louisville has a couple of offensive weapons in receivers Trent Guy and Scott Long that were missing from last year's titanic tilt, but will their presence in '09 be enough to propel the Cards to victory?  We'll certainly find out Saturday, but Card fan, in the interest of hygiene, I wouldn't bet the baby's diaper money.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats, beat the Cards!