BRANDON RADCLIFF VS. JOSH FOREST
UofL has to be able to run the football with their running backs this weekend in order to make sure the offense isn't one dimensional. I think that Lamar Jackson will probably start for Louisville because of the damage running quarterbacks have done against UK's defense but they'll need more than that. Louisville hasn't been dedicated to running Jackson this year so I don't know that Jackson's legs will be all they need.
I think that Brandon Radcliff will have to have another big game like we've seen a handful of times over the last two years. Radcliff is the type of runner that can punish a defense as well as move the ball down the field in smaller doses. He also opens up the play action passing game which UofL needs to create big plays. It's somewhat of a weird situation. UofL would be better off if Radcliff ran for 4-6 yards than it would if Jackson hit one or two big runs. Kentucky doesn't have a great offense but they do have a couple of players that can make big plays and I think Louisville will be best served keeping those guys off the field.
Josh Forrest has seen his production plummet with the loss of Melvin Lewis in front of him. Forrest would be a "coverage linebacker" in NCAA football or Madden. He can run extremely well and is very good for a middle linebacker in zone and man coverage. However, he isn't the type of guy that's going to take on blockers or handle it well when he has to. Louisville's offensive line is not good at all when it comes to getting to the second level. They're slow and it has been very easy for guys to run by them. Forrest will run around a linemen before engaging them but I think he'll be in on a lot of run plays because he will be able to run downhill past Louisville's offensive linemen. If he can consistently get to Radcliff in the hole it will be a long day for UofL. Radcliff will have to be that power back that we saw last year. It's strength vs. strength and It will be fun to see who wins.
JAMARI STAPLES VS. CHRIS WESTRY
Jamari Staples has quickly become the go-to receiver for Louisville's offense late in the season. He is the most reliable receiver on the team catching 69% of his targets. He's also become the teams deep threat over the last few weeks. One thing that Staples has going for him is his length. He uses it well to get separation from defensive backs and he's also made a couple of plays on contested throws.
Staples will be matching up with two very tall and very lanky cornerbacks in Derrick Baity and Chris Westry. Baity isn't a polished player yet as he's only been starting for a few weeks in his first year. Westry, on the other hand, has come into his own and improved over his freshman year and he's learned how to use his size to his advantage. Most corners rely on their speed to recover but Westry has been pretty good about utilizing his reach to get his hand in front of the pass This will be one of the most interesting matchups of the game and whoever wins it could have a big impact on the game.
JOJO KEMP AND BOOM WILLIAMS VS. LOUISVILLE'S SECOND/THIRD LEVEL
Qadree Ollison had a lot of success last week with getting through the first wave of Louisville defenders and running into the second and third level of the defense before he was tackled. JoJo Kemp and Boom Williams are both much more dynamic in the open field than Ollison. Kemp does a great job of hitting a hole and exploding north and south. Williams is more liable to make a guy miss in the open field without losing his speed. Louisville's secondary haven't had the best of luck when it comes to tackling elusive players. We're not talking about Gerod Holliman's "ole" tackling but the angles that the safeties have taken at times could lead to issues Saturday.
What Louisville really needs to do this weekend is keep the backside linebackers clean and able to run. The backside linebackers also have to stay home. Cutback lanes are a killer for any defense but with the aggressive style of play of UofL they are so much worse. Jermaine Reve has been the deep safety this year and he has been really good when he meets a runner at the line of scrimmage, but in the open field he overruns plays too often. That can't happen this weekend. DeVonte Fields and James Burgess also have to avoid over-pursuing trying to get in on the play. Kentucky likes to run some slow developing running plays that are zone blocked. It allows their back to pick the open hole. If Burgess can read the running plays well, he and Reve should be able to take away the cutback lanes on those plays and others slow down UK's running game.
MATT ELAM VS. TOBIJAH HUGHLEY
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a matchup between the two most aggravating players I've watched this year. Both of these players beg the question: There isn't anyone better than this guy? Tobijah Hughley has been the starting center for two years after Jake Smith was moved back to guard before last season. Hughley was an ineffective blocker last year but he didn't make a lot of mistakes and Smith and John Miller helped hide the issues he had blocking. This year those issues have been glaring due to the fact that the offense has been more spread-oriented and the guys around him aren't as good. Throw in the fact that Hughley has been called for innumerable false starts and snap infractions and you have to again ask: There isn't anyone better than this guy?
It's been pointed out often but the loss of Melvin Lewis was big for UK. Matt Elam stepped in as his replacement and he just hasn't been effective at all. Elam is 360 pounds and he is routinely handled by guards and centers that are much smaller. Elam was a composite 4-star recruit coming out of high school with Rivals labeling him a 3-star. When you watched his film it was obvious that he had gotten by because he was so much bigger than everyone else. He wasn't making plays outside of a four yard box. He couldn't chase down plays. He hadn't developed pass rushing skills because he was taller than every linemen he faced. He was a camp star which is somewhat worthless when it comes to offensive linemen and interior defensive linemen. They're not wearing pads and you can't get a feel for how much power they have and how much push they can get.
This shows up on the field with Elam. He is very tall and he plays that way. Therefore, he loses the leverage battle at the snap. Smaller guys are able to get under his pads and control him. I used to watch John Henderson a lot when I was younger. He counteracted his height by being extremely explosive off the ball. He got onto the linemen before they could get their hands into his pads. Elam doesn't explode and he doesn't really give a ton of effort in general. That effort alone would make him valuable. Defensive tackles have to create havoc and he just doesn't do that at all. Tobijah Hughley and the offensive guards for Louisville have to have a good game against Elam. It should be a battle that they win. But, if they allow Elam to get push into the backfield or get penetration to make plays UK's defense will have a good day as a whole. That's what Lewis brought to the table and that's when UK was winning. There are obviously more factors but the line of scrimmage is where games are won. If UK wins it this game goes from a four point spread to a pick em'.