A Look At The 2015 Governor’s Cup

Photo by BILL WINE

Photo by BILL WINE

It’s that time of year again. If you think I’m referring to turkeys or pretty trees, you’re forgetting another reason to celebrate. Well, in Kentucky anyway. That’s right, on November 28, two days after Thanksgiving, Kentucky football fans have another reason to be thankful: the 28th Governor’s Cup. Beginning in 1912, the event occurred intermittently until 1994 when it began to be played annually. In that time, the Cats have managed to hold onto a slight lead of 14 to the Cards’ 13. If Louisville is able to tie up a victory, they’ll also tie up the record. Will their four year streak continue, or will the Cats cause use a sea change and snatch the game away? Either at the live game or snug at home with some leftovers, the only way to find out is to watch and enjoy the game.


THE CARDS

By MIKE RUTHERFORD

For a second straight year, the Louisville football team finds itself in a position where it can be responsible for ensuring an occurrence that is near and dear to the heart of every Cardinal: Kentucky missing out on the postseason.

Without question, this is the primary storyline for a game that is, nationally at least, sorely lacking in that department. To the world outside the crazy Commonwealth, Saturday’s tilt in Lexington is the canned cranberry sauce of a football weekend loaded with turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. For us, however, it’s the game we’ve secretly been thinking about since the beginning of summer and the one we’ll either be touting or attempting to justify in rivalry disputes for the next 12 months.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | THE VOICE TRIBUNE

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | THE VOICE TRIBUNE

There’s nothing UofL can do to magically morph this into a season that’s going to be remembered and beloved by Cardinal fans. Regardless of what happens in Saturday’s battle for the Governor’s Cup, Louisville will enter its bowl game with just one win over an FBS opponent with a winning record (NC State). At the same time, a loss to Kentucky would significantly taint the “We were young and we’re about to be really good” battle cry that so many associated with UofL are ready to carry into the offseason. The stakes are for reasons outside of mere bragging rights.

For Louisville to win its fifth straight over Kentucky and even the all-time rivalry series at 14 (the first six games were by the Wildcats between 1912 and 1924), the Cardinals will almost certainly need to run the ball more effectively than they did last weekend at Pittsburgh. The team that has rushed for the most yards has won this game 18 out of the last 19 years, and there’s a strong chance that the negative one yards UofL produced against Pitt isn’t going to get the job done.

The running game has been a surprising point of concern for the Cardinals in 2015 and one that they believed they had figured out following Brandon Radcliff’s back-to-back 100+ yard performances against Syracuse and Virginia. Instead, Radcliff and the rest of Louisville’s stable of backs were completely stymied by a Panther defense that had previously been susceptible to getting gashed on the ground.

The more intriguing question about the Cardinal offense, of course, lies with the quarterback position. Both Kyle Bolin – the hero of last season’s game on Thanksgiving weekend – and freshman Lamar Jackson have seen significant time behind center, and both would seem to be a safe bet to get snaps on Saturday. Whichever player is in needs to take advantage of a UK defense that ranks near the bottom nationally in opponent Total Quarterback Rating.

Favorites are just 13-8 straight up in the modern era of this rivalry, and for Louisville to avoid the Governor’s Cup upset bug, it’ll need its defense to give an effort far superior to its most recent performance. While Todd Grantham’s unit still ranks 17th in the country in total defense, its numbers take a significant dip when you limit the sample size to that of opponents with winning records.

To the surprise of most, the Cardinals allowed Pittsburgh to thrive on the ground, as Panther Qadreee Ollison carried 28 times for 152 yards and a touchdown with little resistance from the visitors. A talented and experienced front seven led by veterans Keith Kelsey, James Burgess and Sheldon Rankins will have to shore up whatever their issues are quickly because Saturday brings a similar challenge in the form of one Stanley “Boom” Williams, who has rushed for triple digits on five separate occasions this season.

With an inexperienced and mistake-prone quarterback in Drew Barker running the show, it’s no secret that Kentucky is going to want to take as few shots down the field as possible. In order to prevent that comfort, expect UofL to counter by stacking the box and daring the Cats to let Barker take a chance or 20 against a Cardinal corner. It’s a philosophy that can only work if the Cardinal defenders wrap up when they have an opportunity to make a play near the line of scrimmage, something that has been an issue throughout 2015.

A win on Saturday will make Louisville the first team in the modern era of the rivalry to hoist the Governor’s Cup Trophy five consecutive times. Being the ones who, once again, ensure that their arch-rivals are home for the holidays would certainly be an added bonus.


THE CATS

By STEVE KAUFMAN

I don’t know what the holdover effect will be of Kentucky’s 58-10 win last weekend.

It was supposed to be a big, decisive, one-sided win.

It was.

It was supposed to be Drew Barker’s establishing, coming-out game.

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF | CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF | CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

It was – sort of. Not a breakout performance, but no egregious mistakes, either.

So what’s the Kentucky outlook going into its big rivalry game against Louisville? It’s very difficult to tell. There’s not much to be taken away from a game against such a weak opponent.

Offense

The Cats gained 544 yards, 415 on the ground and made many fewer momentum-killing mistakes – holding, offsides, illegal formations, hands to the face, fumbles, dropped passes.

Quarterback

The best to be said of Barker’s performance, I think, was that he got a good, solid 60 minutes of win under his belt. His 16 completions totaled just 129 yards, but he seemed poised.

Patrick Towles’ biggest issue became the cumulative effect of running away from fierce SEC pass rushes for two seasons. Barker’s biggest advantage is that he hasn’t.

Defense: The defense has been UK’s strong suit most of the year, but the coverages were better, the tackling surer, the penalties fewer on Saturday.

Players to Watch

You always have to keep your eye on the quarterback in any game. But four others could be key to the game against Louisville:

C.J. Conrad: I believe he represents an important safety valve for a young quarterback who will need one, who’s still not entirely confident throwing long.

Matt Elam: You could sense his impact against Charlotte. He’s had to become the man since Melvin Lewis went down. Does he now have enough experience to be a solid force in the middle?

A.J. Stamps: The safety is a great athlete and a hard hitter. He was all over the field against Charlotte and a steadying influence on what has become an even-more-freshman-oriented defensive backfield.

The Placekickers: Austin MacGinnis has been hurt. Miles Butler did fine. Ask Michigan State how often these big ole footballers rest their fate on a soccer player.
There are obviously many more key ingredients on any football team, but here’s what I think might be most important of all for Kentucky.

The emotional intangible

Watching the euphoria on the Kentucky sideline, with every long touchdown sprint or big defensive stop, reminded me of the emotional content of the college game. We think of these kids as grizzled grown-ups, about-to-become professionals, stopping off on campus for their two or three years of minor league seasoning.

The key word, though, is probably “kids.”

Kentucky’s kids have been through a lot these last two seasons. In both years, the rising euphoria of piling up wins, getting so close to bowl eligibility they could touch it, and then the plummeting fall of reality, the disappointment of watching that goal recede further and further from their grasp.

So to win so decisively, it didn’t seem to matter who the opponent or what the situation. Nor the dreadful weather. Nor the slim crowd in the stands that got even slimmer as the evening progressed.

Just the joy of a good game in the park – wind swirling, leaves blowing, nose running, sun setting – before your mother calls you in for dinner.

The question is, will it be enough to carry them through to a win against a probably superior opponent?

It wasn’t that long ago that Kentucky was 4-1 and talking about a trip to the SEC title game. It wasn’t that long ago that Louisville was 2-4, its season falling apart.

For what it’s worth, Kentucky has these small advantages going into the game:

It’s at home. The stands should be packed in blue.

Kentucky has a bowl trip hanging in the balance. The Cardinals already have theirs.

Kentucky’s coming off a win, Louisville off a loss.

Louisville’s quarterback situation is apparently still unsettled, Kentucky’s now apparently settled.

A week ago, I’d have predicted that there was no way Kentucky would beat Louisville. It was a program back on its heels, a second straight losing streak worming it way into the collective Wildcat mind, changing quarterbacks late in the season.

And maybe a win that was supposed to have happened – even a 58-10 win – shouldn’t materially change anything. But when you saw those kids on the sideline, jumping and hugging and behaving like, well, kids, you just sensed that a huge emotional swing had taken place. VT