LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (7-4, 4-4) At KENTUCKY WILDCATS (7-4, 4-4)
Game Time: Noon
Location: Kroger Field: Lexington, Ky.
Television: SEC Network
Announcers: Taylor Zarzour (play-by-play), Andre Ware (color), and Olivia Harlan (sideline)
Favorite: Louisville by 10.5
All-Time Series: Kentucky leads 15-14
Modern Series: Louisville leads 14-9
Last Meeting: Kentucky won 41-38 on Nov. 26, 2016 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
About the Governor’s Cup:
The Governor's Cup was created in 1994 as the trophy for the winner of the Louisville-Kentucky game.
Donated by The Kroger Company at a cost of $23,000, the Governor's Cup stands 33 inches tall and weighs 110 pounds. The trophy's base and upright columns are hand-milled black marble. The glass components are optic-grade crystal. All metal parts are 23-karat, gold-plated brass. The cup itself is made of pewter with a 23-karat gold-plated finish.
Last year I spent a lot of time praising Kentucky’s offense heading into the Governor’s Cup. UK hadn’t been dynamic on offense but they had a power rushing attack that mixed very well with their ability to throw the deep ball. The offense came alive in the game last year but nothing that I’ve seen this year would make me think we will see a repeat. UK hasn’t been able to replace the talent they lost last year and some of that is due to them failing to utilize some of their talent.
Stephen Johnson returns at quarterback after playing the best game of his career against Louisville last year. Johnson has had a solid season for the Cats this year but he didn’t take a big step forward like most expected. As of now, Johnson has a similar touchdown to interception ratio while only throwing for a few more yards per game. One area that he has improved is his accuracy. While he is inconsistent, he has completed 62% of his passes this year with a wide receiver group that lost some key players.
The deep ball is where Kentucky found the most success early on against Louisville last year but I’m not certain they will be able to do the same this year. They really miss Jeff Badet in their offense. He transferred to Oklahoma after he graduated and UK just hasn’t been able to replace his big play ability. That has turned Johnson into more of a “game manager” that takes shots down the field every once in a while. I think that his legs will be a bigger factor in this game than his arm. If Kentucky can get their running game going, they might try to utilize some read option plays to keep the defense off balance.
Kentucky has transformed themselves into a power running team over the last year and Benny Snell has been the main reason for that. Snell set the career rushing touchdowns record for UK in only 21 games and I’d imagine that he will hold all of their rushing records by the time he’s done. The amount of power and determination he runs with will be another test for a Louisville defense that all but gave up on trying to tackle AJ Dillon a few games back. Snell will be used again in the “Wildcat” package that UK likes to run. I personally think they will add wrinkles to utilize Lynn Bowden on jet sweeps and trick plays to get Johnson the ball to make a throw. UK knows they’re at a disadvantage this year and they will pull out some trick plays to help level the playing field.
Kentucky has recruited pretty well over the last few years but the receiver position hasn’t panned out like they expected. They’ve missed on a handful of guys and some of the others that they had high expectations for haven’t been as productive as you might expect. Garrett Johnson has been a consistent player for them but they don’t have a reliable number two receiver with one game left on the schedule. Tavin Richardson is a big receiver but he’s only caught half of the passes that have come his way. Blake Bone and Kayaune Ross are also big receivers but Bone is just as unreliable as Richardson and Ross is still too raw. That leaves true freshman Bowden as this year’s winner of the “UK Player That Doesn’t Get Enough Touches” award winner.
Over the last two years Boom Williams was the guy that didn’t touch the ball nearly enough but Bowden has easily taken on that role. Bowden is 7th on the team in targets. He’s also 3rd in catches, yards, and yards per catch. He’s literally the best weapon they have outside of Snell and Johnson and they have only thrown the ball to him 19 times this year. He’s caught those passes 84% of the time by the way. That’s a much better rate than Richardson and Bone who are both near 50% but continue to get more targets. Bowden is also the most physically gifted player on the offense so it makes little sense that he doesn’t touch the ball more.
The Kentucky offensive line is probably the biggest reason that they haven’t been as successful as one would expect this year. John Toth graduating and Cole Mosier being lost for the season killed this line. They’ve been plagued by inconsistency as well as nagging injuries that have caused some real issues in the running game. The pass protection isn’t that great either, but I would place some of that blame on Johnson being indecisive at times. Louisville has been much better at getting to the quarterback over the last two weeks so this could be an area that they can take advantage of some struggles.
Mark Stoops came to Kentucky with a reputation as a high level defensive coach. He seems to have finally turned the corner at Kentucky to upholding that reputation. Kentucky has had a pretty easy schedule this year but they have played the bad teams how they should and made it hard for them to score. However, the best two teams on their schedule were able to score at will. This will be the third time that Stoops will have to figure out a way to stop Lamar Jackson. He can at least do so with the feeling that his defense this year probably has more talent than the others.
Kentucky’s issues on defense have always started up front and this year is no different. They continue to get next to nothing from their interior linemen and that allows teams to run the ball with ease as well as sit in clean pockets on pass plays. Adrian Middleton is the best player up front for UK but he only has 16 tackles on the year and 3 tackles for loss. Kentucky has gave up a ton of rushing yards to a power running team in Georgia last week but they were also gashed by Mississippi State and their spread-style attack.
The edges of UK’s defense is where they are at their best. Denzel Ware plays their hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position and he’s played well with 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Josh Allen has been a revelation at the opposite outside linebacker spot. He started the year with six straight games with a sack but he has cooled off as of late. These two provide a really good pass rush but neither are truly dynamic players that I would expect to run down Lamar Jackson like some of the top players we’ve seen be able to do at times.
Jordan Jones is the best player on the Kentucky defense and I believe he will play a big role in the game. In last year’s game he ended up with 10 tackles and a sack. He will be responsible again for trying to contain Lamar Jackson but he will also be tasked with stopping a running attack from Louisville that has relied on running backs more. UK has played the run very well outside of two games but they haven’t faced a read option attack like Louisville's. Jones will have to make big plays in this game to keep Louisville from running away with it. Slowing down Jackson would go a long way.
Kentucky doesn’t defend the pass well at all. They have one of the worst pass defenses in the country and they haven’t even been able to play well against the bad teams on their schedule. EKU completed 71% of their passes against them. Ole Miss had a backup quarterback throw for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns on them. Even Tennessee completed nearly 80% of their passes. A big issue is the lack of consistent pressure up front but at some point, you actually have to cover someone and they just don’t do that very well.
Kentucky still has a group of very big corners with Derrick Baity on one side and JUCO transfer Lonnie Johnson on the other. Both are 6-3 and they are backed up by 6-4 Chris Westry. I don’t really understand the obsession they seem to have with jumbo corners with their pass defense being so bad for so long but Baity can make some plays and Johnson has flashed some good skills at times. UK will utilize some corner blitzes and that’s where the size of these guys is a big plus. They all tackle pretty well and can bring a little more power when they are going in for a sack.
Safety is another strong point of this defense with Mike Edwards and Darius West leading the team in tackles. Edwards was a guy that I really wanted at UofL out of high school and he has developed into a much better player than I ever imagined. Edwards plays the ball really well as a deep zone safety but he also brings his pads when he plays the run. West isn’t isn’t the player that Edwards is in coverage but he plays the run very well and plays very comfortably in the box. UK likes to blitz their safeties a lot so I would be on the lookout for them to bring them in an attempt to fluster Lamar Jackson and get his feet moving in the pocket. Clemson and NC State found some great success by getting him uncomfortable and UK could try to do the same.
Excitement Level: 9.2
Once the season fully got away from us about a month ago, this was the one game that was going to bring the excitement level back to where it should be. Louisville-Kentucky will never be below a 9. Whether it’s football or basketball, it’s just such a unique feeling.
Game Attire: Jeans, red U of L hoodie, grey Cardinal bird hat
The rain jacket worked swimmingly last week but I’m not up to rocking it at an indoors game watch party. I’m going casual because I feel like you need to wear red for the rivalry game, but the two red pullovers that I own have a horrible W/L record.
Pregame Meal: Beer, assorted dips
I’m doing the pregame show on 790 again at the station and then heading straight from there to a friend’s house where I’m told there will be dips. I will bring beer.
Bold Prediction: Kentucky attempts a trick play that goes horribly
For some reason, this staff seems to love putting Lynn Bowden in positions where he can look silly. I don’t know if he’s going to be involved in this bold prediction, but history says it’s likely.
Zykiesis Cannon Interception Alert Level: Gold(I) (I still he can’t believe he dropped that one last week but it oddly made me feel better about this week)
Every now and then the alert level gets super particular.
Predicted Star of the Game: Lamar Jackson
He has seen all of your adorable social media trolls for the last 364 days. He did not find them funny.
—Kentucky’s upset of Louisville last season ended the Cardinals streak of five consecutive victories, the longest since the resumption of the series in 1994.
—Kentucky entered last year’s game as a 27.5-point underdog, making their 41-38 triumph the largest in the history of the series.
—The team that has rushed for more yards has won 19 of the last 21 meetings in this series. The Wildcats won the battle on the ground in 2014, but still lost the game, 44-40. Louisville, meanwhile, out-rushed UK last year but lost the game.
—Louisville is bowl eligible for the eighth straight season and the 18th time in the last 20 seasons.
—A victory by Kentucky would give the Wildcats their first eight-win regular season since 1984.
—Louisville is 9-8 against Kentucky in games played in Lexington, and have won three straight on the road against their rivals.
—Kentucky will honor 25 seniors during a pregame ceremony.
—Quarterback Lamar Jackson leads the nation in total offense at 414.5 yards per game, which is more than 79 other total teams. He has totaled 300 or more yards of total offense in 11-straight games and a school record 25 in his career — five more Chris Redman’s 20, which is second all-time.
—Jackson has rushed for 1,287 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing for 3,273 yards and 23 more scores.
—Kentucky has finished at .500 in the SEC in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1998-99.
—Kentucky RB Benny Snell has 1,107 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns this season. One more score would make him UK’s all-time single-season leader in that category. Snell already owns UK’s career TD rushing record with 29.
—Louisville is 22-6 in the month of November under Bobby Petrino.
—Louisville is 37-4 under Petrino when winning the turnover battle, and 12-1 in games where they commit zero turnovers. That mark includes last week’s 56-10 win over Syracuse.
—Favorites are 14-9 in the modern era of the Governor’s Cup rivalry.
—Louisville enters Saturday with the No. 3 offense in the country, averaging 560.4yards per game.
—Lamar Jackson has rushed for 100 yards or more in five straight games.
—Kentucky’s Josh Allen ranks sixth in the SEC in sacks (7.0). He is the brother of standout U of L women’s basketball player Myisha Hines-Allen.
—Kentucky will be without the services of starting tight end C.J. Conrad, who will miss the rest of the season because of a foot injury.
—The team that has produced the fewest number turnovers has won 14 of the last 18 meetings in this series.
—Home teams are just 10-13 in the modern era of the series.
—Bobby Petrino is 6-1 against Kentucky as Louisville’s head coach, and 7-2 against the Wildcats overall.
—Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 223 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
—Louisville is 182-12 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-106 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
—“No one.” —Jonathan Greenard on who on Kentucky’s offense jumped out to him on film
—”Nah, just Jackson.” —Kentucky LB Denzil Ware on if any U of L players besides Lamar Jackson jumped out to him on film
—“I’ve waited a whole year for this game. I fumbled last year and we lost ... so it’s going to be a good game.” —Lamar Jackson
—“Lamar doesn’t talk about it a whole lot, but he’s a great competitor. Last year he put too much on himself thinking that fumble cost us the game. That’s just how great competitors are, [but] always when you look back at a game like that there were 15 other plays that if you just do it on that play you win the game.” —Bobby Petrino
—“You try to approach this game like every other game. Obviously you look at the defense, you look at what they’re doing but the approach is the same.” —Kentucky QB Stephen Johnson
—“If there’s a game on our schedule, that’s something to play for. And we have one this upcoming week.” —Reggie Bonnafon
—”We’ve still got a lot ahead of us. We’ve got a chance to win a couple of more games. That’s how we want to send (the seniors) out. We’re working hard to get that done.” —Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran
—“They’re still a very good football team. Really, when you have a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Lamar Jackson) behind center it puts a lot of pressure on you.” —Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops
—“I think going into the bye week, we hit a point in the season where things hadn't gone exactly the way we wanted to, but like I've said before, coach told us that when you get backed into a corner, either you're going to lay down or you're going to fight. We all collectively came together on that bye week and decided to really put in the work and get back to being a hard-nosed defense. At the end of the day, you want to put your identity on tape because the teams next week are watching that tape. I think over the last couple of weeks we've wanted to show people who we really are.” —James Hearns
—“To win would be really big, not just for going on after this but because of the game it is. It’s Kentucky-Louisville. It’s for that Governor’s Cup sitting right over there. So it’s really big, not just for afterward but for the moment right now.” —Kentucky QB Stephen Johnson
—“I don't think you have any extra energy. It's just the next game up on the schedule, and it just happens to be our rival. As far as preparation goes and as far as game planning, I don't think you do anything outside of what you've normally done. I think you stick to the same schedule, same script, and at the end of the day, there's not magic you can really put into it. You go to practice and you work hard, you work on your craft, and that's how you're going to win the game.” —James Hearns
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 45, Kentucky 34