Fighting For The Bluegrass

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer

By IGOR GURYASHKIN
Staff Writer

Well, it’s the Saturday we’ve been waiting for because the University of Louisville is playing host to Kentucky. No, it’s not summer, you’re not imagining it. For the first time the Governor’s Cup – the game that doles out bragging rights for the gridiron in the Bluegrass is upon us and it comes at the end of an eventful and memorable season.

Going into Saturday’s game, Louisville is coming off a season that’s paradoxically surpassed certain expectations, but can easily claim to be tinged with a certain amount of regret. After all, when you are going into the final game of the season with an 8-3 record and a heavy favorite to make it 9-3 how can you complain? But when you look back on the games that Bobby Petrino’s men lost you can see why there must be a sense of what could have been.

The first loss in question is obvious – Virginia on the road. Early in the season, and with the Cardinals going through a quarterbacking dilemma, the offense struggled. But Virginia were also on an 11-game ACC losing streak and managed to scrape a late win with a last ditch 42-yard field goal. 23-21 is close, but against Virginia who are 3-4 in conference play and 5-6 overall for the season – it’s unforgivable.

Against Clemson it was again a case of both sides struggling to produce anything on offense. But it was a winnable game, especially when you consider that Louisville failed to convert on 2-and-goal with 21 seconds remaining. A touchdown there and that’s another game that could have been placed in the win column.

And then of course there’s arguably the biggest non-bowl game in Louisville’s history – against Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State, with Heisman-winner Jameis Winston leading the charge. A score of 21-7 against the defending national champions at half-time had every single fan within Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium wondering if the unexpected could truly happen. A rout was mooted, but instead Louisville pushed the Seminoles to the limit, forcing Winston to play his best game of the year, in which he passed for 400 yards – most of which came in the second half. Broken hearts were strewn everywhere, but pride in the fact that Louisville pushed the nation’s best team so hard was also present. If Charlie Strong had left the Cardinals a strong outfit, then that game showed that despite their weaknesses – Louisville could still compete with the very best.

As for the positives in Louisville’s year, there are a whole host to speak of. The reason why Petrino’s men were able to hang with the big boys was because many of the gaps that were created by the senior class of last season were filled with more than able bodies. Lorenzo Mauldin made a move to linebacker in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s new set up. The result? A young man who will most certainly be drafted in the first two rounds of next year’s NFL draft. Mauldin typified the resolve shown in Louisville’s defense throughout the season. Just remember, going into the season defense was where most people had concerns; it has ended up the other way around. The defense was as good as any in the nation. Courtesy of Gerod Holliman, Louisville leads the nation in interceptions with Holliman still on the brink of breaking the all-time interception total for a single season. On rush defense the Cards are fourth in the nation, while ninth in sacks. In fact, according to ESPN Louisville’s total defensive efficiency places them as the eighth best defense in the nation. But when you consider the level of competition this year, you could argue it’s even better.

Other positives are obvious, as well. The opening game of the season, and the program’s first ever in the ACC, was against Miami. Howard Schnellenberger was in attendance with split loyalties, the game was broadcast on primetime ESPN and the end result was a convincing victory against the Hurricanes. Victories against Florida International, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Murray State meant that Louisville were able to build on the success of last year.

As for Kentucky, what a tumultuous, uneven and exciting season they’ve had? The Wildcats, as everyone knows, simply could not win a game in the SEC. Cannon fodder on the road, and even at home, the Cats simply could not break their conference duck for three years. Well, so long to that. Because they have their win; no, scratch that, wins.

The ominous signs could first be seen when the Wildcats took on Florida in Gainesville and pushed the Gators into three overtimes, only to lose narrowly. But in that game Kentucky could assuredly say they had a quarterback they could believe in, via Patrick Towles. Towles has notched 14 touchdowns, three of which came against Florida. It’s been a breakout year for the young man from Fort Thomas, and if Mark Stoops can recruit around him, he could have a very capable offense on his hands. But back to Kentucky winning.

Their first SEC win came against Vanderbilt with a 17-7 win. It was comfortable, competent and a huge morale boost. With the monkey off their backs, a win against South Carolina was next – 45-38. Kentucky showed they could pile on the points, and confidence was high. But if you’re a Cats fan you know that disappointment is always lurking around the corner. Kentucky have gone ahead and lost their last five games of the season. That’s bad. Some of those games they were always going to lose – such as to No. 1-ranked Mississippi State. But against the likes of Tennessee, who are 5-6 for the season and 5th in the SEC, they really could have done better.

Kentucky are clearly in another year of transition, but still following a visible upward curve. Mark Stoops has shown he’s more than capable as a recruiter, with a class that could soon threaten top-25 preseason rankings, and will hopefully only get better. He’s got a contract extension – so expect a long Stoops reign. For Louisville, they will be overwhelming favorites on Saturday and rightfully so. Despite the furor and controversy of Bobby Petrino’s return to UofL, he’s clearly managed to get the best out of a program that could have sunk with the vacuum left by Charlie Strong. Instead, Louisville, a potent team on offense, who’s also capable of shutting down top-tier opponents. Saturday is going to be fun, even if we think we know what’s going to happen. After all, it always is.

Players to Watch

University of Louisville

DeVante Parker: Parker is going to the NFL next year and he’ll be drafted early. The reason is that he’s unquestionably one of the best wide-receivers in the nation, if not the best. Tall, fast and agile – the Ballard alum has the ability to outleap most corners, all while getting into tight spots because of his pace. While he may have missed a good portion of the season through injury – seven games to be precise – he came back strong at the most crucial of times, by notching 214 receiving yards against Florida State and 144 at Boston College. If Kentucky are to stand a fighting chance they need to figure out how to stop Parker.

Gerod Holliman: While Holliman wasn’t able to snag an interception against Notre Dame to equal the all-time record for interceptions in a season (14) his tally of 13 is astounding. Aside from Saturday, there has only been one other game in which the Miami native failed to bag a pick and with Wildcat quarterback Patrick Towles having thrown an interception in each of his last three games, look out for Holliman to make a game-changing difference in the final game of the season.

Reggie Bonnafon: With Will Gardner out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, Bonnafon has been assured of starting. When the quarterback position swapped back and forth at the beginning of the season, Bonnafon looked low on confidence, nervous and indecisive. While some of those things have yet to be remedied, the former Trinity High School man looked ready for the biggest stage when he left the field against Notre Dame victorious. Fast in the rush, with a powerful arm Bonnafon needs time, but has all the tools to be a dual-threat quarterback. He can trouble Kentucky next week.

University of Kentucky

Patrick Towles: While Towles has had some loose games for the Wildcats, he’s also been there best quarterback in many seasons. He’s big at 6-foot-5 inches and has been able to notch 14 touchdowns during a season in which Kentucky saw their first conference wins in the SEC since 2010. Wins against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and a close loss to Florida have seen head coach Mark Stoops’ team take their biggest strides in years. With the right players around him, Towles can and has been a formidable weapon.

Javess Blue: Blue might not be in the same category as the likes of DeVante Parker, but the senior from Babson Park, Florida has been a solid and capable wideout for Big Blue Nation – bagging five TDs during the course of 2014 while taking far fewer catches than the year before. The standout moment for Blue was a highlight-reel take catch of a Towles pass against Louisiana-Monroe. Blue might get the smaller share of receptions, but he’s going to be the biggest threat for the Wildcats if he can connect with Towles.

Josh Forrest: The junior linebacker from Paducah might not be a household name, but he’s steadily done a solid job for a Kentucky defense that’s struggled at times this season, especially in the Wildcats’ five game losing streak going into the Governor’s Cup. While Forrest has only managed one sack the entire season, his 102 combined tackles place him tied for 26th in the nation. And with Louisville struggling intermittently throughout the season with their offensive line, it might be the perfect game for Forrest and his colleagues to shine.

Player photos courtesy of UofL and UK Athletics Departments.