Saturday night brings the latest edition of the Battle for the Governor's Cup at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. With Kentucky struggling to two unimpressive wins and Louisville coming in off a disappointing loss to Florida International, both teams need to win Saturday's game to keep what look to be long odds for a return trip to the postseason alive.
With so much on the line in an early season matchup, here are three keys for Louisville if they hope to end the current four game losing streak to the 'Cats.
Protect Will Stein
The Cardinals' offensive line must protect Will Stein if they have any hope of beating Kentucky on Saturday. The offense thus far has allowed itself to play behind the chains far too many times. Against FIU, the Cardinals gave up four sacks on first down. For an offensive line with five new starters, it's unfair to expect a great deal of production when they're constantly facing second and third down and long situations.
A lot of obviously passing downs against Rick Minter's unorthodox, complex defense would be trouble for the Cardinals.
It's important to protect Stein because through two games, he's thrown the ball quite well. Against Murray State and FIU, Stein has completed 62 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and just one interception (admittedly a costly one). Protecting Stein will give him time to get the ball to what is the obvious strength of the team: the wide receivers.
Although the group is young, Josh Bellamy, Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and Devante Parker have already given Cardinals fans plenty to be excited about. Harris caught a touchdown against FIU and Parker has a touchdown catch in each of the first two games. While Coach Strong has always emphasized that he wants to be a physical team that runs the ball well, there's no denying that a well-protected Will Stein has a lot of weapons to work with in the passing game as well.
The Cards must also protect Will Stein because last week, the Kentucky secondary showed it is vulnerable to the pass. While the Kentucky defense has handled the run game quite well in its first two games, it did give quite a few plays in the air against the Chippewas.
In its opening game against South Carolina State, Central Michigan quarterback Ryan Radcliff threw for just 168 yards. But against Kentucky, Radcliff put up 295 yards and a touchdown and had Central Michigan in the lead in the second half. It's reasonable to think that if Stein has time to throw, the Cardinals will be able to make some plays in the passing game against that Kentucky secondary.
Stop the Kentucky Run and Make Them One Dimensional
While it is always the defense's goal to make a team one dimensional, it's been extremely important in the most recent meetings between Kentucky and Louisville. Last year Kentucky rushed for 230 yards and used it's big plays in the running game to get out to a big early lead and to salt the clock away late. In its four game winning streak, Kentucky has outrushed the Cardinals each time.
The ability to consistently run the ball has eluded the Wildcats thus far, but they did start to show some signs of life late in the Central Michigan game when Josh Clemons got the lions' share of the carries and broke away for an 87 yard touchdown run. Clemons will have to continue to to carry the lions' share of the carries as starter Raymond Sanders will be out with injury.
It's vital for the Cards' defense to make Kentucky one dimensional because through two games, the Wildcats passing game has been erratic at best. Currently, the Wildcats rank 115th out of 120 teams in passing offense, Morgan Newton has been inconsistent, completing just 44% of his passes, and the Kentucky receivers have been plagued by drops.
Keeping Kentucky in second and third down and long situations will give Strong and Vance Bedford a chance to unleash a flurry of blitzes at Newton in hopes of turning over the ball. Bunching up to stop the Kentucky running game and forcing Morgan Newton to beat the Cardinals through the air dramatically increases the chances of Louisville winning on Saturday night.
Make Something Good Happen Early
Perhaps more important than anything related to the X's and O's of the game, the Cardinals need something good to happen early for the psychological boost it gives. When a rivalry has been one sided for any amount of time, it's almost impossible to avoid the "here we go again" thoughts that start to creep in at the first sign of trouble. In the 2007, 2008, and 2010 losses to Kentucky, there have been big plays early that swung momentum to Kentucky early on. With the game on the road, it's vital to avoid giving what was a clearly grumpy crowd in Commonwealth last week a reason to be excited.
The Cardinals also need something good to happen for their own self-confidence after the disappointing loss to FIU last Friday night. The body language of the team was frantic and pressing after the shell shock that came from the interception return for a touchdown and the two long touchdowns to TY Hilton.
To win a rivalry game on the road, the team will need to play with some confidence and nothing will help that more than a big play early on. In the last trip to Commonwealth, Victor Anderson ripped off a 35 yard run that set up the team's first touchdown and kept them in the game mentally. The Cardinals will need more of that this Saturday.
Winning a rivalry that's been decided by a touchdown or less in three of the past four years will be difficult. The Cardinals haven't won in Lexington since 2005. Still, if Louisville can keep the Kentucky running game in check, protect Will Stein, and get something positive early on, they should be able to score some points and bring the Governor's Cup back to Louisville where it belongs.