The One We’ve Been Waiting For

During the postgame celebration that took place in the visitor’s locker room at Commonwealth Stadium almost exactly one year ago, 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 rings more true today than it ever has before.

Since the arrival of Mark Stoops four 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.

Instead, Stoops failed to show significant progress with the Wildcats in his first three seasons in Lexington, taking a two-year stretch of time in which UK had gone without playing in a bowl game and extending it to five. The head coach has also extended another embarrassing streak to five – his program’s number of consecutive losses to arch-rival Louisville.

In each of the last two seasons, Kentucky had an opportunity to end both of its streaks of futility with a regular season-ending victory over Louisville but allowed second half leads to evaporate in painfully destructive fashion.

Especially difficult to stomach was last season’s Battle for the Governor’s Cup, in which UofL spotted its in-state rival a 21-0 deficit. Spearheading the comeback that allowed the Cardinals to return home with a 38-24 victory was true freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ran and passed all over the Wildcats in a manner that made the home crowd appropriately fearful of the succeeding two years.

In previous seasons, Big Blue Nation could often be heard uttering some variance of “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?

“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 Head Coach Bobby Petrino said after the game. “It was great being able to come back after being down like that and see our guys grow up.”

Growing up was one of the primary storylines of Louisville’s 2015 season. While 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 2015 Battle for the Governor’s Cup.

Of the 13 Louisville players who recorded an offensive statistic last season against Kentucky, exactly zero were seniors. Jackson showed his first real glimpses of becoming the player who will accept the Heisman Trophy in a few weeks, and the four Cardinal juniors on defense who played such a large part in shutting down Kentucky in the second half all chose to return to UofL for one more year.

A year later, all those players head into a rivalry weekend in which they’re trying to both erase the sting of last week’s playoff-crushing loss to Houston as well as maintain their unblemished record against their arch-rivals. A Cardinal victory would also give Louisville its first ever lead in the Governor’s Cup series, a fact due mostly to Kentucky’s piling up of six victories between 1912 and 1924.

Regardless, the UofL youngsters who came of age 12 months ago in Lexington are one win away from making the record book reflect what has been apparent for a long time: When it comes to football, Kentucky is a Cardinal state. VT