Kentucky will kick off the 2012 season with a contest against their arch rivals, the Louisville Cardinals in Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville this Sunday. Kentucky will come into the game as a convincing underdog with the current line having the Cardinals favored by 15. With nothing to lose and fan expectations at an all time low, the Wildcats head off in a match up of two of the youngest teams in the country.
What you really need to know about Louisville
The Cardinals like to talk a big game, but they’re just as unproven as Kentucky. The roster is littered with freshmen and sophomores with little-to-no experience. The folks in Louisville should be given credit for their ability to generate a massive amount of undeserved and unearned hype, but the reality of the situation is that this team is largely the same squad that was able to sneak into a bowl game after one of the worst schedules in recent history. As if you didn’t already know, the 2011 season included losses to FIU, Marshall, North Carolina, Cincinnati, and Pitt in the regular season as well as victories over Murray State, Kentucky, Rutgers, West Virginia, Syracuse, Connecticut, and South Florida. You could legitimately argue that the Wildcats (and one of their worst teams in recent years) were the top team on the schedule, or at least in the top three. This season ultimately concluded with a loss to NC State in the Belk bowl. So, while there are a couple of highly rated recruits on the team, it’s still a head-scratcher as to how Louisville became a top-25 team over the offseason. This year, the Cardinals will rely on dual-threat QB Teddy Bridgewater to fuel its offense and a defense that features eight junior or senior starters and three sophomores. Louisville should lean towards a balanced offensive attack and a blitz-heavy scheme on defense. While the roster wouldn’t fare well in a real NCAA conference, the weak Big East slate has given the team and its fans hopes of a 10+ win season. Again this year, you could make a serious argument that a Kentucky team expected by most to go 6-6 or worse this season, might be the best team on the schedule. One thing is for sure though, and that’s to expect the unexpected when two teams this young go head to head this early in the season. Anything can happen.
The players you really need to know for the Cardinals
#5 – Teddy Bridgewater
The athletic quarterback will attempt to build on a very good freshman season and lead the Cardinals offense. He finished 2011 with a 65% completion percentage and 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Despite his reputation as a prolific runner, he only managed to rush for 5.1 yards per game and 66 total yards on the year. Those numbers will have to improve in his sophomore year for the Cardinals to have the type of season they think they’re in for.
#9 -Devante Parker
Most of the preseason hype has surrounded Bridgewater, but Parker is probably the most athletically gifted player on the team. Standing at 6’3, Parker is a physical presence on the outside and could pose a serious problem if matched up against one of Kentucky’s younger or smaller cornerbacks. Parker is the team’s most dangerous redzone threats as well, as 6 of his 18 total receptions in 2011 went for touchdowns.
#2 – Preston Brown
Relatively unknown outside of Louisville, Brown is actually a pretty solid linebacker. He’s a little on the short side at only 6’0 tall, but he’s a guy that knows how to get to the ball. He’ll return for his junior season hoping to top his 84 total tackles in 2011.
#29 – Hakeem Smith
Smith tied Brown for second on the team in tackles with 84 last season, but did it from his safety position. in addition to racking up the stops, he also led the team with three forced fumbles, and had an interception and fumble recovery.
Top three match ups to watch
UK’s Maxwell Smith vs. UofL’s Hakeem Smith
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith will have to play some head games with Smith to try and keep him away from the ball. Effective play-fakes and misdirections will help quite a bit, but there will have to be some excellent reads by Maxwell Smith to neutralize Hakeem Smith. Losing track of the talented safety could lead to not only interceptions, but also some laid out wide receivers for Kentucky.
UK’s Avery Williamson vs. UofL’s Dominique Brown
Brown is a very big back at 226 pounds. Unfortunately for him, Williamson is a very big middle linebacker at 254 pounds and he can run well enough to be a special teams standout at that size. It is unlikely that the Cardinals lean exclusively on the power running game to try and take down the Cats, but it will have to be part of the offense to keep Kentucky on its toes defensively. When the Cards try, Williamson will be counted on to come up and stuff the run, especially when the powerful Brown is in the game.
UK’s Mister Cobble vs. UofL’s Mario Benevides
Is a center vs. nose guard battle sexy? Not really. Will it have a huge impact on the game? Most definitely. Benevides is the best player on Louisville’s offensive line and has plenty of experience, but he will really have his hands full with Cobble. Being a Louisville native, you can bet Cobble will be jacked for this game, and unfortunately for Benevides, Cobble has 31 pounds on him. If Cobble can get a push and force double teams, it will free up Kentucky’s linebackers to create havoc in the backfield.
Potential breakout players
#9 – Demarco Robinson
If there’s anyone on the team excited for another chance at Louisville it’s Robinson. His fumble in the fourth quarter played a big part in Kentucky losing the game and he should be as ready to play as anyone. After the spring game, Robinson has emerged as one of the most promising offensive players in recent history and could be poised to have a colossal season for Kentucky.
#2 – Bud Dupree
It’s hard to label a guy that many consider as one of the team’s most talented defensive players as a “breakout’ guy, but Dupree fits the bill. He only started three games last season and totaled 21 tackles on the year, but this guy might be poised to make some serious noise in only his second season on campus. He should be the premier pass rusher for the team and Dupree could take advantage of the suspect Louisville offensive line.
#33 – DyShawn Mobley
He’ll be third or fourth on the depth chart at running back, but Mobley’s powerful running style could make him a star by the end of the day Sunday. Weighing in at 225 pounds, Mobley is the type of back Kentucky has lacked in the past several years and could do some serious damage against Louisville’s defensive line. The Cardinals’ entire front seven only averages 258 pounds, which is pretty light. Comparatively, Kentucky’s front seven comes in at an average of 267 pounds despite the fact that Kentucky utilizes a 3-4 and Louisville uses a 4-3. Mobley will be about the same size as all three of Louisville’s starting linebackers.
#15 – J.D. Harmon
With several talented freshmen cornerbacks on the roster, Harmon jumping out and claiming the #3 job surprised a lot of people. He’ll be the first corner off the bench as a walk-on true freshman, but shouldn’t be too intimidated. Standing at 6’2 and weighing in at 197 pounds, Harmon will be taller than all but two of Louisville’s receivers and will outweigh all but those two. Maybe more importantly, half of Louisville’s receivers will be sophomores or freshmen, so they won’t have much experience on him either.
Key for a Kentucky Win
This game should be pretty simple. When Kentucky plays Louisville, the team that wins the rushing battle almost always wins. This season will be no different either. If Kentucky can get behind their young (but big) offensive line and drive the ball on Louisville, the team will be hard to stop. On defense, Cobble, Rumph, and Ukwu will be charged with moving the line of scrimmage back to cause negative plays and occupying blockers to keep Kentucky’s linebackers free. If these three can accomplish this, Kentucky will find this contest much more manageable. Then there’s turnovers. The team that wins the turnover battle in any football game is more likely to emerge victorious, and the Governor’s Cup will b no different. With the chances of inclement weather running high and both teams being very young, this could prove even more important than in years past.