The air and the buzz is always different for Louisville/Kentucky games, but the environment inside Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday was...I don't want to say "subdued" because I feel like that gives a false impression, but I can't think of a better word. Let's just say this: If this were your first U of L/UK game, you would have walked away with a flawed view of what the rivalry experience is like. I'd tell you to come back to Lexington in late December if you want a more accurate experience.
There was a decent amount of the token smack talk, but the atmosphere for these games always takes a hit when one side is expected to win decisively, especially when that side is the visiting team.
The Kentucky fans that were in Commonwealth for the opening kickoff were great, but it was hard to miss the empty seats on both sides of the stadium.
Yeah, I sat in the very top row.
When all was said and done, neither side had any right to be overly glum, but they also didn't have enough ammo to do any serious chest-thumping. Louisville fans were happy the win was decisive, but couldn't exactly go overboard after winning by less than the vast majority of the country thought they would. Kentucky fans were pleased with the effort and the team's ability to compete, but boasting about a two-touchdown home loss to your arch-rivals requires far more pride-swallowing than BBN is willing to engage in.
Both sides left Commonwealth sort of like, "well, that happened." It was strange.
As much fun as it was (for us) to watch at the time, think about how much better both sides would have felt after this game had UK just taken care of business against Western Kentucky. For the Cats, it would have been further proof that Stoops and company have the program on the right track and that this is a team that might be able to compete in the SEC a year ahead of schedule. For Louisville, it would have been a decisive, but not dominant, win over a 2-1 team that looks like it might be considerably better than anyone predicted before the season.
The second it became clear that Kentucky was going to lose to Bobby Petrino in another season-opener was the second that the expectation for the Governor's Cup game became a one-sided affair. As CardsFan922 already said, it's crazy to think that Louisville's largest win in Lexington in a decade is being looked at as a failure by a strong contingent of Cardinal fans. Much of the blame for that can be hurled in the direction of the Hilltoppers.
I spent the better part of Saturday morning driving to Lexington behind this truck with a UK flag and a mini-teddy bear in a No. 5 jersey hanging from its bumper.
How'd that work out for you?
As much as people bitch about Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, there's nothing like a day at Commonwealth to make you miss it. The concourses are always shoulder-to-shoulder, the bleachers are uncomfortable and awkward, and then of course there's the company you're forced to keep. It's just not a fun place to spend a Saturday.
It was pretty obvious that the staff had put some new things in place specifically for this game, but give them credit for not being too stubborn to walk away when it became obvious that this was going to be a competitive contest.
Whether it was Bridgewater's fault or the wide receivers', there were three instances early in the game where there was miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver. The Cards also tried a handful of deep shots to no avail. Instead of continuing on this path, Shawn Watson and company opted to play to their strengths and run straight up the gut and take the middle of the field that Kentucky was surrendering in the passing game.
Credit Kentucky's staff for having the Wildcats extremely well-prepared, and credit the young UK secondary for doing about as well as anyone could have hoped against U of L's passing attack. Still, it was obvious that Louisville had the superior players, and the coaches simplified things and allowed that to become more evident after the game's first 20 minutes or so.
Special teams are still a major concern. You can't direct much of the blame at John Wallace, but Louisville's coverage guys again lost containment on a couple of occasions and allowed a pair of big returns. If this doesn't stop, then there's going to be a time in October or November when it really, really bites us in the ass.
We talked about it a little bit last week, but U of L also has got to find some way to generate some excitement in its return game. Robert Clark's speed is pretty obvious when he's playing wide receiver, but not so much when he's deep on kickoff return. Out of 123 FBS teams, Louisville ranks tied for 112th in average yards per return. It's almost becoming a token fan response, but I'd love to see James Quick get a shot back there, especially if he's going to continue to see so few snaps on offense.
Even when the special teams do everything right, it seems like something goes wrong. For example, look at long-snapper Grant Donovan flying down the field and then having the ball hit off the back of his foot and cost the Cards at least 15 yards on a punt. I also still haven't seen what Jarel McGriff-Culver did to warrant that personal foul on Kentucky's first punt, but all I know is that Charlie Strong was going ballistic on the officials and not Jarel.
I suppose the silver lining here is that Louisville hasn't allowed a touchdown or committed a turnover on special teams, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be much, much better. Raised expectations and all that.
Credit the offensive line for settling down and asserting itself after a really shaky start. Jamon Brown in particular was having a rough time with Za'Darius Smith and Kentucky's ends in the first half, but helped create time for Teddy and space for the backs after the break. I think Kamran Joyer also needed some time to get his feet back under him in his first start of the season.
In perhaps the ultimate piece of irony from a program and a fan base that provides plenty of it, Kentucky's mascot has a line beard and wears a headband:
In addition to that, there's the fact that UK has a DJ behind the scoreboard (although they don't mention or show him) who plays what BBN would deem "thug music" if they heard it inside PJCS. For all the pot shots Kentucky fans like to take at U of L's game day environment, they have pretty much the exact same thing.
Louisville's marching band performed all "sugar-related" songs during halftime, which drew some pretty loud boos. The Commonwealth announcer also made the comment when they came onto the field, "I think we can all agree that it's great to BEAT a Florida Gator." Well, I mean, we can because it's something we've done at some point over the course of the last 27 years. You can listen to us talk about it and agree, but that's about it.
Whether it was the intended purpose or not, I really think that Michael Dyer making the start on Saturday was the best possible thing for Senorise Perry. Rick Pitino has talked at length in recent years about players struggling to overcome the mental aspect of injury rehabilitation, and as an outside observer, it seemed like that phenomenon may have been playing a part in Perry's tentativeness during the first two games.
Dyer starting was a strong message to Senorise that if he doesn't start playing with the confidence he displayed a year ago, then it doesn't matter how healthy he is because he's not going to see the field. It's safe to say the message was received, because the Senorise we saw in the second half was light years ahead of the Senorise we saw against Ohio and Eastern Kentucky.
As much time as we've all spent talking about how we need to "cherish every second we have with Teddy," I think it's time that we also start saying some of those same things about DeVante Parker. The kid is an absolute freak, and he might be the most lethal red zone threat this program has ever had.
The craziest thing about DeVante's first touchdown catch is that that's exactly where Kentucky wanted Teddy to throw the football. They showed single coverage on Parker early to grab Bridgewater's attention, and then ran an extra safety over just before the ball was snapped so he'd be double-covered. It didn't matter.
The kid is Spider-man.
The pass interference call on Terrell Floyd near the end of the first half was just atrocious. The worst part was that you knew Kentucky was going to go the "throw the ball up the sideline where only our guy can catch it and maybe we'll get a flag" route, and it worked. Floyd did a great job and there was absolutely zero justification for the penalty.
Out of all the penalties and the miscues and other stuff on Saturday, the maddest I got all day was when the officials spotted the ball at the 2-yard line after Charles Gaines' interception. His momentum and the tackler clearly took him into the endzone, which should have resulted in U of L taking over at the 20. And if they weren't giving the Cards the touchback, then the ball should have been spotted at the 1-inch line or so, which also didn't happen. It was an awful call, and forced Louisville to run a sneak and a run off tackle on first and second downs, respectively.
It might be time to let the defensive backs go through a couple of drills with the wide receivers every day. U of L DBs had at least five or six opportunities to pick off passes on Saturday, and they came down with one of those balls. I know this is where everyone drops the "that's why they play on that side of the ball" joke, but those are opportunities that you'd love to see seized going forward.
Speaking of drops, thank you, UK wideouts.
The biggest surprise of the entire day might have been Calvin Pryor blowing the tackle that sprung JoJo Kemp's huge run in the second half. CP is about as sure a tackler as Louisville has ever had at safety, and to see him come up empty on a play where he was the difference between a gain of four and a gain of 47 was really surprising.
Lorenzo Mauldin, Marcus Smith and Roy Philon are so good, you guys. It was also great to see B.J. DuBose back making some big plays.
And then there's Brandon Dunn.
Pretty hard to not call that the play of the day.
As much as I enjoy it, I can't see the Teddy Heisman shirt getting the call again next week over new Red Louisville Football shirt. Again, the expectations for this program (and the shirts its fans wear) have been raised.
This shot from the C-J's Scott Utterbach is just fantastic.
How much better would we all be feeling right now if John Wallace's essentially meaningless fourth quarter field goal wasn't blocked and the final score was 30-13? It's like the meaningless three-pointer at the end of last year's basketball game that allowed Kentucky fans to talk all summer about "you only beat us by three points" or "we were only one possession away."
It's crazy how much plays that don't even really matter can linger for months and effect the overall perception of a game that was already won.
There's not much I can say in summary that hasn't already been said here or elsewhere. It wasn't the performance I thought it would be, but that doesn't mean it was as bad as a lot of folks (both Louisville fans and non-Louisville fans) are claiming.
Teddy Bridgewater is still the best quarterback in the country, this is still a legitimate top 10 squad, and this still has the potential to be the best Louisville football team ever fielded. Ultimately, I think getting hit (or it least lightly smacked) in the face is going to be a good thing for the Cardinals.
Three up, three down.