Yes I know we are in the middle of March Madness, but I can't keep attention away from the upcoming college football campaign. There will probably be people reading this article having a laugh at my expense for taking the time to write about a game that will not kickoff until Labor Day weekend (the date of which isn't even determined yet.... more on that fiasco later), and at the fact it is coming from someone who lives in basketball obsessed Louisville, Kentucky. The biggest chuckle may materialize due to subjects of the article having a combined 2007 record of 14-11 and one bowl appearance to boot.
However I must insist that this may be the most pivotal match that the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky will have played since the intrastate series resumed in 1994. Yes, the 2008 Governor's Cup game will be more crucial than last year's Brian Brohm and Andre Woodson shootout, more vital than the 1997 Papa John's Cardinal Stadium christening (more like desecrating after a 68-34 beatdown issued by Tim Couch and UK), and more tide-turning than the 2000 overtime battle won by Louisville after a thunderstorm delay. I will explain why this game will determine who will have a choke hold on this series and in recruiting, and also shed some light on which side will have the advantage heading into the game.
Since a 1-10 flop in 1996, the Louisville Cardinals had turned into a speeding locomotive of momentum. The program, led by the shock-and-awe passing attacks of John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino, had racked up nine straight bowl appearances highlighted by winning the 2007 Orange Bowl, and were becoming regular tenants in the top ten. After the Orange Bowl, as everyone knows, Petrino bolted for the big bucks in the NFL and was promptly replaced by up and coming Tulsa head coach Steve Kragthrope. Still this transition didn't stop the local and national media from annointing U of L as serious national title contenders, causing all or nothing expectations from a fan base that had already been accustomed to witnessing Louisville cremate team after team at home.
2007 started out no differently, with a near embarrassing 73-10 pasting of Murray State. But then a cause to worry came the very next week, as an atrocious Cardinal defense surrendered 554 yards and 42 points to Middle Tennessee State. The eighth ranked team in America has no excuse for allowing that kind of offensive production by a team from the lowly Sun Belt Conference, and the supporters let them know that by serenading them with boos.
That was the luggage that the Cards carried into Commonwealth Stadium for the 2007 meeting with the Cats, who also had some momentum in the form of their first bowl victory since 1984 and the core from that squad still on the team. Hosting the first of three BCS bowl winning opponents, Kentucky came into the contest with little to lose and as a result, much looser than Louisville. The Cats forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and picked off Brian Brohm's first pass en route to a fast 13-0 lead.The Cards managed to finish the half well enought to take a 21-19 lead at the break. The second half was back and forth, coming down to a late fourth quarter Kentucky possesson with The Ville trying to hang on to a 34-33 lead.
It almost seemed certain that the Cats, who were 0 for three decades in tight games with Top 20 teams, would turn the ball over or make some kind of stupid penalty that would end up costing them the game once again, and lo and behold, they did! A personal foul penalty had pushed Kentucky back into a third and two miles situation with just over 30 seconds remaining, and you could sense the crowd simultainously thinking "Typical Kentucky". The next thing you saw was a football perfectly cutting throw through the night sky into the hands of wide-open Steve Johnson, who was allowed via defensive miscommunication to streak down the sideline for the Governor's Cup winning touchdown, and I must say that in all the college football games I have ever attended that I have never felt an electricity in a stadium like that ever.
What's harder to believe is that I was feeling this while being on the losing end. It was in that instant that Kentucky had caught up the Louisville locomotive, or it at least had slowed it down. Kentucky went on to defeat eventual national champ LSU, and nearly ended mammoth losing streaks to SEC East rivals Florida and Tennessee before ending the season with a second straight Music City Bowl victory. Louisville responded the week after the UK loss with a even more shocking loss to inept Syracuse and limped all the way to a 6-6 record, failing to get an invite to a bowl game for the first time in a decade.
This is why the 2008 edition of this rivalry is so important. Both teams have lost their senior quarterbacks to the NFL. Both teams' recieving corps have been decimated by graduation or early entry to the draft. Even worse for Louisville, their entire linebacking unit from last year is off the roster and the top cornerback Rod Council was chucked from the team for an armed robbery.
Kragthrope has and is still facing intense criticism from the community for last year's disastorous season. He has totally revamped his coaching staff, but if improvements are not made this season, Card fans will pressure athletic director Tom Jurich to sharpen his axe. The Kentucky game will be the perfect barometer, as they have lost just as much talent as Louisville.
The Cards will hand the reins of the offense over to Hunter Cantwell, touted already as one of the top senior quarterbacks by some of the talking heads at ESPN and elsewhere. I wouldn't personally call a player who has made only four starts in his career, the last being in 2006 against Middle Tennessee, and also no longer has the luxury of all-conference recievers and tight ends. I guess I would give him an edge over either Curtis Pulley, an undersized scrambler who wasnt even on Kentucky's roster last year, or Mike Hartline, a 6'6" pocket passer who boasts a grand total of six collegiate passes against Eastern Kentucky and Florida Atlantic (who probably has a better defense than U of L).
Since both teams are going to probably struggle a bit through the air, this game will be decided on the ground. Louisville and Kentucky both have depth at running back, and both offensive lines should be improved from last year. So who will be able to stop the run? I believe both defensive lines, for all intents and purposes, are close in talent and depth. The difference is found at linebacker. Louisville is scrambling for replacements at that position, even converting safety Brandon Heath to that spot. Kentucky loses their defensive ace Wesley Woodyard, but returns SEC battle tested Braxton Kelley, Micah Johnson, and Johnny Williams. Combine that with shut-down cornerback Trevard Lindley, and you have an absolute advantage (on paper anyways) for the Wildcats.
Here is the kicker. The date of the game is under dispute, because Louisville wants to play on Labor Day to accommadate a primetime ESPN audience. Kentucky wants this game to be played that Saturday or Sunday, using the excuse that they don't want a short week to prepare for Norfolk State the following Saturday, and they won't budge. As a beer drinking Louisville fan and working person who will be in attendance, I side with UK on this issue, because I don't want to be hungover at work on Tuesday plus I have grown tired of Louisville playing weekday games for their pimp ESPN.
Also, because I believe UK will be a slight favorite in this game, this will actually add more pressure on Kragthrope and the Cards because this game is a perfect opportunity to regain some of the mojo the previous U of L teams have had. They are at home with a senior, highly ranked quarterback playing a team that has lost the majority of its firepower. The Cards will come out tight, again. Kentucky, realizing it is in rebuilding mode (as it is usually is) and playing on the road will just be looking to get in sync offensively, not demanding too much from itself and in turn play loose, again. If Louisville starts to sputter, its fickle fans will let them have it, playing to the momentum of the Wildcats. That is why Kragthrope has to get things going immeadiately in order to take back control of this series, and also his job.
Maybe putting this game on ESPN is not such a great idea, it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back as far as pressure goes.