During the postgame celebration that took place in the visitor's locker room at Commonwealth Stadium last Saturday afternoon, some variation of "this is our state" could be heard from the voices of a number of Louisville players and coaches.
It's a declarative statement that might ring more true now than ever before.
Since the arrival of Mark Stoops three years ago, UofL fans have been warned by their friends to the East that their time is coming. For a brief time, Stoops had appeared to be on the verge of accomplishing the unthinkable: making Kentucky fans care about football. He was bringing 50,000 fans to the spring game, recruiting right with the perennial powerhouse programs in the area, and promising to make the Wildcats not only competitive with Louisville, but competitive with the rest of the SEC.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving Saturday when Kentucky turned an early three touchdown lead into a soul-crushing two touchdown defeat. The loss not only guaranteed that the Cats would be kept out of college football's postseason for a fifth straight year, but it marked the program's fifth consecutive loss to their arch-rivals, the first such streak since the two teams began playing again in 1994.
In previous years, Big Blue Nation could often be heard uttering some variance "enjoy this one while you can, because it's the last one you'll win for a while." It's the party line often uttered by a fan base of a program with an auspicious new coach and promising young talent, a pair of assets Kentucky supporters believed they were in possession of. Instead, the 2015 edition of UK's season-ending loss to Louisville has everyone associated with the program asking more questions than ever.
Among the most prominent of those questions is this one: If Kentucky couldn't beat Louisville this season, when can they?
The player who took the majority of snaps at quarterback for both teams last Saturday was a freshman. Louisville's rookie, Lamar Jackson, accounted for 316 total yards and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Kentucky's fresh-faced signal caller, Drew Barker, misfired on 16 of his 22 passing attempts and did little to back up the notion that he can be the player who takes the Wildcats to the next level.
"I think Lamar really grew up, but also the guys around him rallied and competed hard and helped him play better, which was really good to see," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said after the game. "It was a great being able to come back after down like that and see our guys grow up."
Growing up has been one of the primary storylines of Louisville's 2015 season ever since a handful of silly mistakes cost them a chance to make a national splash by beating Auburn in their season-opener. The team's youth became even more of a talking point after the Cards started the season 0-3 for the first time since 1984. The negative connotation attached to playing so many youngsters fully evolved into a positive during the Battle for the Governor's Cup.
Of the 13 Louisville players who recorded an offensive statistic against Kentucky, exactly zero were seniors. The only players who helped put points on the board who absolutely will not be back for the Cardinals next season were kicker John Wallace and punter Josh Appleby. That would seemingly bode well for UofL's chances of keeping the Governor's Cup in the Derby City once again 12 months from now.
During last summer's Governor's Cup Luncheon, Stoops raised a number of eyebrows among his own fan base with his assessment of the Commonwealth's primary gridiron rivalry.
"I accept that responsibility of building our program to national prominence like we need," Stoops said. "Give Louisville credit, they've been a very strong these last several years, certainly since I've been here. We need to bring our team to that level, and we'll get more national recognition for this game."
Last Saturday, Louisville once again reminded Kentucky that the current levels of the two programs are not equal, a fact which doesn't appear likely to change any time soon. Until it does, this will remain the Cardinals' state.
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune