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Kentucky game marks a shot at redemption for Bilal Powell

If there's been one major surprise during this year's edition of rivalry week, it has to be the amount of attention paid to Bilal Powell.

His ouster of Victor Anderson at the top of the running back depth chart coupled with Charlie Strong's statement that he would be "the face of Louisville football" has left Kentucky fans mocking his ability and Cardinal fans wondering just how drastic a transformation he could have made in the offseason.

The hype has made Powell's final Battle for the Governor's Cup the most important game of his Cardinal career to date. Not that it wouldn't have been without it.

Powell came to U of L with a reputation based almost entirely on a high school highlight video. Still, he began his Cardinal career in the secondary, before being moved to running back early on in Steve Kragthorpe's fall camp. When the backfield became injury-ridden near the start of the season, it was Powell - and not eventual '08 Big East Rookie of the Year Victor Anderson or highly-touted Dale Martin - whose redshirt was burned. When he finally got a chance, he justified the move by rushing six times for 70 yards and 13 times for a spectacular 91 yards in the final two games of the season.

With George Stripling dismissed from the team and Anthony Allen transferring to Georgia Tech, Powell was the guy at running back heading into the 2008 season.

And then the Kentucky game happened.

With his team appearing poised to head into halftime trailing by a manageable score of 3-0, Powell - who had been stuffed on the game's first play and appeared tentative ever since then - fumbled while apparently trying to switch the ball in his hands as he was being tackled, allowing UK's Ashton Cobb to recover in the endzone for a game-changing touchdown. Louisville would go on to lose 27-2 in a game where Kentucky's offense essentially didn't have to do anything to secure a victory.

Powell, who finished with 16 yards on six carries, would later admit that the fumble changed everything and was something he could never completely get out of his mind. He finished the year with just 354 yards and two touchdowns.

Compounding adversity became a theme for Powell as he showed up to camp before his junior season appearing out-of-shape and unenthusiastic. Predictably, he did not shine. Plagued by injuries, shoddy blocking and the loss of a step or two, Powell finished '09 with 392 yards on 108 carries, for an average of just 3.6 ypc.

Keeping the past two years in mind, it's no wonder Powell's ascension to RB one has been discussed ad nauseum throughout the Commonwealth this week. He's noticeably shed 15-20 pounds and his vast potential has always been apparent, but is his mind in the right place to be able to help carry a team in his senior season?

Louisville fans have seen firsthand how one game or one moment early on in a player's career can shape their play for the next two or three years (see: Sosa, Edgar).

Saturday will mark the ultimate test of redemption for Bilal Powell: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, season-opener, against Kentucky. It's all anyone hoping to exorcise some demons could ask for.

It's now or never, No. 15.