Five questions: Louisville vs Kentucky with Justin Rowland
1. What's the state of Kentucky's team health-wise right now?
Who's out and how have backups played? Aside from the season-long issues (QB Terry Wilson out, WR Isaiah Epps apparently out and redshirting, DL Phil Hoskins out all year and probably applying for a medical redshirt), UK should be in good shape on the injury front. DeAndre Square, Chris Oats, and Kash Daniel were out at linebacker against UT-Martin but they will all likely play against Louisville. Defensive coordinator Brad White said on Monday that you can tell the starters are fresh this week because UK has had the luxury of playing so many younger guys for so much of the last couple of games.
2. What have been Kentucky's biggest strengths and weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball this year?
The offensive line has been outstanding. There is not a weak spot. That group has blown open holes all year and even though the passing game has been non-existent lately they hold up in protection situations. It's one of the 10 semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given to the top offensive line in college football. Over the last six games, Kentucky is averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, second only to Navy in rushing per week during that time span.
They present a dangerous and diverse rushing attack with Lynn Bowden now about 50 yards from a 1,000-yard season in only six games at quarterback, and AJ Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, and Chris Rodriguez all showing 100-yard capability in a given game. The weakness is passing, where UK has been as bad as any team in college football during the same time span. The passing game now is essentially throwing it deep and hoping for a big play or pass interference a few times per game.
3. What does Kentucky do well and where does it struggle defensively?
Statistically, Kentucky has been surprisingly good on the defensive side of the ball this year even after enormous losses last year. By almost every statistical measurement they have a top 20 passing defense and are first in the country in fewest passing touchdowns allowed on the season. Over the past month, the rushing defense has been markedly improved. They are tied with Iowa for the longest streak of consecutive games without allowing an opponent to score 30 points (15 straight). Calvin Taylor is one of the SEC's top defensive linemen and Marquan McCall is showing star potential as well on a big, physical defensive line. UK is solid across the board at linebacker with a balanced group that can play the run or get after the backfield. The secondary lost its top six players from last year but the numbers are fantastic.
The one issue is really a question. How much have circumstances contributed to UK's lofty ranking? There were monsoon or bad weather games against Georgia (where the Bulldogs played extremely conservatively), Missouri, and UT-Martin. UK saw backup quarterbacks against Mississippi State and South Carolina. They really haven't played many very good offenses. Louisville is one of the better, more explosive offenses they will have seen.
4. Who are the top players for Kentucky that Louisville fans should be aware of going into the game?
Quarterback Lynn Bowden is in the running for the Paul Hornung Award given to the most versatile player in college football and he should win that. He'll touch the ball on every play and could get 25 carries and 10 pass attempts, so he's No. 1. The backs that have really been standing out lately are redshirt freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez, who run very hard and get through tackles. Logan Stenberg will be one of the first offensive guards taken in the upcoming NFL Draft, Drake Jackson is one of the most experienced centers in college football, and true sophomore Darian Kinnard has graded out as the offense's best player (PFF) at right tackle.
Defensively Carter is a 6'9 unique player whose length makes it tough to block him. He has 7.5 sacks, tied for the SEC lead in that category. UK has a very strong duo at nose tackle in Quinton Bohanna and McCall, with the latter being ranked the No. 1 player in Michigan at one point during his recruitment. Everyone knows about Kash Daniel but he has not played like one of UK's better linebackers this year. Josh Paschal is a physical Jack 'backer who makes a lot of plays around the line of scrimmage, Boogie Watson is the best pass rusher on the edge, and sophomores DeAndre Square and Chris Oats are very athletic for their positions on the inside.
In the secondary JUCO transfer Brandin Echols has probably been the most consistent performer this year but safety Yusuf Corker, stepping in for Davonte Robinson who was lost for the year in preseason camp, has also played at a very high level.
5. Prediction or not, can you offer some thoughts on the matchup and how the game might play out?
Kentucky's formula for success is always the same. Possess the ball for as long as possible with long, clock-milking drives that wear down the defense, keep the other offense out of sync, and take the other team out of its game plan. Since Bowden took over at quarterback it has either worked or come close to working in all but one game (Georgia). It didn't work against a Tennessee team that has played much better of late, but it almost did. I have a hard time believing Kentucky isn't going to rush for a lot of yards against the Cardinals. The key for Kentucky will be avoiding fumbles (not as much of a problem of late as earlier) and finishing drives with touchdowns in the red zone. It will also be important for Kentucky not to fall behind early because they are not built to play catch up.
The challenge Louisville presents is at the skill positions and (all due respect to Javian Hawkins) particularly at receiver, where they are better than all the teams UK has seen this year save perhaps Florida and/or Tennessee. We'll learn a lot about how good Kentucky's defense really is in this game. UK's coaches have said this week that you must make open-field tackles against this Louisville team. That has been a strength so far for Kentucky this year but what makes UofL a unique challenge is they are not a finesse team, they will also work to establish the run and keep balance.
My pick will be Kentucky in a close line as the Vegas line currently reads but these are two teams and two programs trending in the right direction and it wouldn't surprise me if either team won.