I reached out to the Mike Rutherford this week in order for ASoB readers to learn more about UofL's team from someone well-positioned to know them best. Mike, who is the Managing Editor of both Card Chronicle and SB Nation's college basketball coverage, was kind enough to provide detailed responses despite The Maui Invitational and The CBE Hall of Fame Classic games being played well into the wee hours last night. A sincere thanks to him for carving out some time for us. Without further ado...
The end of the season is upon us. Looking back on UofL's first season in the ACC, and finishing 6-3, do you find yourself very satisfied or just satisfied?
It's interesting because heading into the season, I think every Louisville fan would have probably taken a 5-3 ACC record and would have definitely taken an 8-3 overall mark with a chance to be 9-3. But now you're there, and it's kind of like all you can think about is how the team was two plays away from being 10-1 and how they blew a 21-0 lead in their other loss. So while I think being 8-3 is certainly more satisfying than unsatisfying, there's also still a little bit of frustration lingering.
That said, the frustration would be multiplied by about five had U of L let another one slip away in South Bend last weekend.
Heading into 2014, UofL's offense was returning quite a few play-makers, but it was the defense that had to replace 6-7 guys along with a very wise defensive staff. Perhaps improbably, it's been the defense that has truly shined this season. What factors do you contribute to that?
Yeah, losing two first round picks and a third round pick who's currently leading NFL rookies in tackles was a blow, but Charlie Strong and his staff recruited really well defensively. The unit had a pair of bona-fide stars returning in Lorenzo Mauldin and Charles Gaines, and the guys who were asked to step up were more capable than I think anyone could have predicted. The nose tackle position is so important in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense, and both Sheldon Rankins and DeAngelo Brown have been tremendous for U of L in that spot.
Speaking of Grantham, you also can't say enough about what he and his assistants have been able to do. Because of the money he was paid and the displeasure over his performance at Georgia, I'm not sure there's been a more controversial assistant hire at Louisville than Grantham. He responded by leading a unit that really carried U of L through a first half of the season where its offense simply could not put points on the board.
I think a lot of UK fans are aware of defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin and defensive back Gerod Holliman. What are some of the other UofL defenders UK fans should keep their eyes on?
We already talked a little about Rankins, Gaines and Brown, so I'll leave them alone here.
Heading into the year, pretty much everyone thought safety was going to be Louisville's primary area of concern. As a result, the staff added James Sample, who had previously played at Washington, to help with depth at that spot. Despite getting to U of L just before the start of fall camp, he immediately stepped into a starting role and has been terrific all year long.
Linebackers James Burgess and Keith Kelsey have also been two of the biggest reasons teams have had such a hard time running the ball against Louisville. Burgess is extremely athletic and will likely be the guy tasked with keeping Patrick Towles from scrambling for too many yards, while Kelsey is more burly and apt at stuffing holes in the middle.
Also keep an eye on Deiontrez Mount coming off the edge. He's been a little bit quiet over the last month of the season, but when he's locked in, he's capable of making a game-changing play or two.
Reggie Bonnafon was very good last week at Notre Dame. In what areas has he improved the most as the season progressed?
I think the biggest thing is just getting a feel for the college game. Not only is Reggie a true freshman, but he was only the starting varsity quarterback at Trinity High School for one year [He played receiver for most of his prep career - Will]. On top of all that, he was forced to make his first college start less than two weeks after the passing of his father. When you take all that into consideration, it seems ridiculous that some people expected him to step right in and be the second coming of Teddy Bridgewater.
Reggie is extremely mature, and I think the experience he gained doing things like starting at Clemson and playing against Florida State really helped him last weekend. He still holds on to the ball too long at times and he's still prone to missing open receivers, but he's certainly way ahead of where he was during the first half of the season.
Devante Parker will in all likelihood be a first round pick. Since he's come back from his injury has any team found success slowing him down?
Well, Notre Dame is the only team to keep him under 100 yards so far, so I guess the four catches for 65 yards and a score are going to have to qualify as slowing him down. The biggest thing the Irish did to make that happen was let Louisville run all over them. I'm kind of joking, but I'm also kind of serious. The Cards only had to throw the ball 21 times in that game (as opposed to 50 rushes), and Bonnafon only completed eight passes, so DeVante still finished with half the team's receptions.
There were a lot of complaints during the game about Notre Dame's Cole Luke holding Parker, but he still found ways to get open and was actually overthrown twice on plays that could have easily been long touchdowns. It sounds simple, but I think you just have to stick multiple guys on him at all times and force Bonnafon to find someone else to beat you with through the air. All you have to do is look at the difference between the Louisville offense without Parker and with him to realize that's the best strategy. The kid is awfully, awfully good.
Leaving aside Parker, which UofL offensive player is the likeliest to have a big game against UK?
Given Kentucky's struggles with stopping the run and U of L's success on the ground, I think you have to say either Michael Dyer or Brandon Radcliff.
Despite Petrino using four different running backs at various points in the season, both those guys have multiple 100-yard games, and they combined for just under 200 yards last week in South Bend. Radcliff runs incredibly hard, and I'm not sure I've seen him taken down by an initial tackler once this season. Dyer's backstory is well known, and while he's never quite gotten back to Auburn Michael Dyer status, he's been pretty solid since the calendar turned to October.
Both sides know exactly what Louisville is going to try and do when they have the football, it's just on the Wildcats to figure out how to stop it.
Predict the outcome and the biggest contributing factor(s).
I've been wary of this exact scenario from the day Kentucky reached 5-1, but it's hard to ignore the way the Cats have lost their last five. It's also comforting to know that Louisville is playing to keep its shot at the Orange Bowl alive, as opposed to just having to hope that the rivalry and senior day would serve as adequate motivation.
It feels like every time we're in a situation where both sides are expecting a completely one-sided affair, it doesn't happen. Mark Stoops knows what's at stake here. If he wins, Kentucky has produced a borderline shocking season that included a road win over Louisville and a trip to the postseason. If he loses, that awful sting of losing every game in the second half of the year is going to hang around the program for the next seven months. I'll be very surprised if UK doesn't come out with a lot of bite and maybe some surprises to keep things interesting.
I'll go: Louisville 28, Kentucky 16