Under normal circumstances, this article would be dedicated to mocking the University of Louisville football team, fans, coaches, the dumb bird with teeth mascot, etc... After all, I don't hide my feelings as they pertain to all things Cardinal and this is, to many, "Louisville Hate Week".
But I can't bring myself to do it. There is too much at stake on Saturday and the Cards, like it or not, have a very good football team. A football team with an 8-3 record. A team that went in to South Bend at dealt the Fighting Irish a rare second straight home loss.
As Louisville is riding high, Kentucky comes in during their lowest point of the season. After hanging tough with former #1 Mississippi State, the ‘Cats have fallen flat on their faces losing a not as close as the score indicates game 20-10 at Missouri, dropping a home game in a 63-31 route against Georgia, and, worst of all, getting drubbed at Tennessee 50-16. It hasn't been pretty and it seems as if the ‘Cats are getting worse by the week.
The Good News
There are some silver linings left in this playbook. Kentucky is coming off of a much needed bye week. The players were beat up after slogging through seven straight games. Six of those games have come against SEC opponents, three of them have been on the road, four of the losses were by double digits, and two of them have been against ranked opponents. The extra week to rest up and prepare was essential for a team that lacks depth in key positions, especially on defense.
While the bodies of the players were certainly fatigued, I believe that there was mental fatigue as well. It isn't easy to lose week after week in college football, especially after starting in such spectacular fashion. It takes a toll on a player's confidence.
All of the fatigue, mental and physical, translates to what we have been seeing on the field as of late: dropped passes, missed tackles, bone-headed penalties, missed blocking assignments, lackluster effort, and poor execution.
This is a rivalry game and anything can happen. Think of last season's game in Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky hung with the Teddy Bridgewater led Cardinals for most of the game and ended up losing 27-13, which was closer than the experts predicted. One would have to think that the 2014 Wildcats are vastly superior to the 2013 Wildcats, especially at the offensive end of the football.
The crowd at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is a big question mark. While the Cardinals can boast a well traveling fan base, they don't attend their own home games with the same enthusiasm. One has to think that the Saturday after Thanksgiving coupled with a noon start may keep some people at home. Kentucky fans do travel well, especially when they play at Louisville since there are so many ‘Cat fans in Jefferson County. The crowd may prove to be a bit of a bummer to the Louisville players.
At this point, Kentucky has a lot left to play for at this juncture of the season. At 5-6, a bowl game is still attainable, and what better way to get that sixth win that to do it at your most hated rival's expense. The Wildcats aren't only playing for their bowl lives, but they could also play spoiler.
Louisville is looking square in the face at an opportunity to play in the Orange Bowl. Their destiny is not entirely in their hands as the outcome of Clemson vs. South Carolina will determine some of the outcome, but a loss to the Wildcats would be a dagger in the heart of the big time bowl bid for the Dirty Birds.
And lastly, Louisville is playing with a freshman starting quarterback. Yes, Reggie Bonnafon won on the road at Notre Dame, but his passing accuracy is still suspect, he doesn't have much of a deep ball, he takes a lot of sacks and have proved to be turnover prone. Patrick Towles will be the better of the two quarterbacks on the field. If Bud Dupree, Jason Hatcher, and Za'Darius Smith can apply pressure to Bonnafon, then I like Kentucky's chances.
The Bad News
The ‘Cats are banged up even after the bye week. Patrick Towles has a banged up ankle from the Tennessee game. If he doesn't play, the ‘Cats can't win. If he isn't able to use his feet as a weapon, the ‘Cats chances of winning go down dramatically. Louisville has a very good front seven and they will get pressure on Towles, make no mistake about it. If Towles is unable to escape pressure, roll out to complete a pass or make a play with his legs, then it will be a very long day.
Dorian Baker is out for the season with an injury, depleting an already short and young receiving core. Outside of Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue, the receivers have been a big disappointment during the losing streak. The loss of Baker is a big one.
The ‘Cats haven't won a road game since 2010 when Joker Phillips utilized the "Wild Cobb" offense against the Cardinals way back in 2010. That's one heck of a losing streak heading into a must win game. It is senior day for Louisville and they have the added motivation for playing for a big time bowl game, which could make for a very tough environment for the Wildcats on Saturday.
The Cards have seemed to have found their offensive mojo with the duel threat running game of Michael Dyer and Brandon Radcliffe. Both rushers are fast, elusive, and have the ability to break tackles as well as run over secondary defenders. The run defense has been abysmal for DJ Eliot as of late. The Kentucky run defense has allowed a total of 1,304 yards dating back to the LSU game. That's not getting it done. In turn, the Cardinals have rushed for 719 yards combined in their last four games.
And then there is Devante Parker. He's what really stirs the drink for Bobby Petrino's offense, and is the biggest reason for that unit's turnaround. Since returning from a foot injury, the Cardinal offense has become more potent, whereas before it looked stuck in molasses. His presence alone demands two defenders, which takes away from the run defense. Parker is a first round draft pick and a big play waiting to happen. Earlier this season I would have said that A.J. Stamps and Blake McClain would be the guys to put on him, but McClain has been out with an injury and Stamps has a banged up shoulder. It's going to take a monumental effort to contain him. And even if he is contained, the running game will be more effective because of him and Louisville's other receivers, which are mediocre at best without Parker, will be freed up for gains.
Tying it All Up
This isn't going to be easy. There is a reason that Louisville is favored by two touchdowns and that reason is that the Cards are simply the better team at the moment. Can Mark Stoops pull a rabbit out of his hat and rah-rah the boys in blue to victory? It's possible, but I wouldn't say it's likely.
Not many suspected a five win season; most experts had the ceiling at three or four, but reaching that fifth win was pretty exciting. The problem is that it set the standards higher. Kentucky was sitting at 5-1 with six more chances to win one more game to do the unthinkable and go to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The opportunities were there. Some were barely missed, but most were lost before the game even started.
My hope is that Kentucky goes out with a bang and that the players have a renewed zest and zeal similar to what we saw in the Swamp, and at home against South Carolina and Mississippi State. If that Kentucky team comes to play, then there is a chance for a win.
But if that other team comes to play, you know, the one that doesn't know how to tackle and allows teams to run roughshod over them, then this game is going to get ugly. And fast.