Louisville's defense has been one of the better units in the country this year but they have been asked to do a great job in bad situations. Louisville's offense turns the ball over more than almost any team in the country and the defense has been left to clean up their mess. 27 turnovers have led to much closer games than Louisville expected and at times the defense has had to defend short fields. Being put in those bad spots against bad offenses like Virginia and Wake Forest weren't that big of a deal, but Houston took full advantage and put up 31 points with ease. While Kentucky isn't Houston, they are a team that knows what they do well and they excel at it. They're also a team that does something that Louisville has had some struggles with.
Louisville fans got their first glimpse at highly touted recruit Drew Barker last year and he couldn't have played much worse. This season started out rough for Barker also and then he went down with a back injury on top of all of it. Stephen Johnson was brought in this offseason as a JUCO signee and he was forced into action on short notice. Johnson was reportedly ready to start as soon as he signed and he felt he was the best option for Kentucky. That confident attitude probably helped him be prepared for his moment. Johnson isn't a quarterback that you you want if you need someone to make plays for you or make a comeback for you. However, he is a guy that can make a handful of good passes against basic coverages. Johnson can also deliver a very nice deep ball inside the hashes which is great for UK with their great running game. Johnson doesn't have to look off a safety or worry about a zone blitz where he might not see a linebacker jumping into a window. UK doesn't ask Johnson to do too much and he isn't really capable of doing more than what's asked. He's not a bad player by any means but he is definitely the guy UK wants to rely on to "win" the game.
For the last two years I spent a lot of time wondering why Boom Williams doesn't get the ball more. Boom is the best weapon UK has and for the last few years he's barely been averaging double digit touches. Well, the reason for that is the fact that Boom is super fragile and when he gets too many carries he ends up missing a lot of plays because he gets beat up. Eddie Gran solved that problem this year when he decided that true freshman Benny Snell should start getting carries in the third game. Snell provided UK with a true change of pace running back that could take the majority of carries and allow Boom to stretch his usage. UK used JoJo Kemp in this role last year and he had some games that were really good but his lack of size also led to him being limited. Snell doesn't have the problem. He's a workhorse guy that can run the ball over and over again and not wear down. Then you counter with Boom to hit the tired defense with speed and quickness. To be perfectly honest, it's what UK had glimpses of last year but what they've been missing the vast majority of the time. Mark Stoops finally stopped trying to be an air raid team and it made his entire team better.
Kentucky's receivers don't get many opportunities to make plays due to Kentucky's run game as well as Johnson's lacking passing ability. When they do get the chance, they're not really setting the world on fire. Jeff Badet and Dorian Baker have been plagued by drops. Ryan Timmons has never reached his potential. Others just haven't had enough opportunities. I will say that Jeff Badet has been a bright spot as the team's deep threat this year. He doesn't always catch the ball, but he has had little issue with getting behind a defense. Badet is at his best on deep post routes because he lacks the size to make a play over a corner on a go route. Also, UK does a really good job with play action and it's much easier to complete a deep ball into the middle of the field than the sideline. Badet and Garrett Johnson get the lion's share of targets from Johnson so they will likely be the guys he looks for in a big game like this one. C.J. Conrad has also been getting more looks at the tight end spot. Conrad might be the most talented pass catcher on the team but they have had some issues finding ways to get him the ball. Keith Kelsey and Stacy Thomas are both good in coverage so UofL hasn't had to worry about tight ends much this season. However, UK runs the ball better than pretty much everyone else on Louisville's schedule and that could cause those guys to hesitate instead of dropping into coverage immediately. Conrad could exploit those zones over the middle.
The offensive line is the best group on team, in my opinion. Jon Toth is one of the best centers in the country and UK finally settled on a full group this year instead of shuffling guys in and out. Drew Barker was sacked 8 times in the two games he finished, but Johnson has made quicker decisions and he's been able to escape some pressure. With Johnson at the helm, the offensive line has opened big holes for Snell and Boom and the offense as a whole has been able to adjust to a power running game. This is the best offensive line Louisville will see since the Clemson game. It will be interesting to see how UofL's pressure works with a veteran guy like Toth making the line calls.
KEY PLAYERS: RB Benny Snell, RB Boom Williams, WR Jeff Badet, C John Toth