LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It is a storyline almost as old as the modern renewal of the rivalry itself. When the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky meet, the team that runs is the one that rules.
That's not unusual in football -- but this is: From 1999 to 2007, the winning team's top rusher outran the entire losing team by himself.
So as you might expect, both U of L's Charlie Strong and UK's Joker Phillips have emphasized the run heading into Sunday's season opener, particularly given that the game could feature an unscripted participant -- Hurricane Isaac, which could pose any number of natural obstacles for the teams, though its potential impact still is too early to tell.
Phillips last week named senior CoShik Williams, a 5-9, 184-pound former walk-on, his starting running back, after knee surgery sidelined Josh Clemons. As luck would have it for the Wildcats, Williams was about the only running back who had any success in last season's meeting, carrying six times for 29 yards (Clemons, the starter, carried 14 times for a net 28). He'll be spelled by Raymond Sanders. Both are smaller backs, but Phillips has a couple of freshmen who are more traditional power backs should he need to turn to them in spots.
At U of L, no starter has been named, though running backs coach Kenny Carter says one back has emerged to begin taking most of the reps in practice. Coaches aren't saying who that is. Of the three finalists -- juniors Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry -- Brown and Wright both ran it effectively against the Wildcats last season. Brown carried for a game-high 91 yards (in his first game as a full-time college running back) and Wright averaged better than seven yards per carry (7 for 51 yards). And Perry, the fastest of the three, might be the best-suited for the Cards' short passing game.
Brown has added weight and muscle and will certainly be U of L's short-yardage option. But Wright is seen by most as the most versatile of the backs and could be the one getting the nod in offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's West Coast scheme.
Running backs in the West Coast Offense need to do a lot more than take handoffs, and in fact late practice competition has centered around blocking and quarterback protection as much as running the ball. The scheme calls for a good dose of two-back formations, with one back at times split off as a receiver.
So more than personnel, how each coach intends to establish the run might be the bigger factor. UK's running game was virtually non-existent against good competition a year ago. Its best showing on the ground against a BCS-conference opponent -- a 202-yard effort against rival Tennessee -- required 56 carries and an offense committed to doing nothing but running with wide receiver Matt Roark filling in at running back.
Prior to that game, UK had managed less than 1.5 yards per carry against Vanderbilt and Georgia, and its season-low per-carry output came against U of L, which used 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to hold the Wildcats to 1.09 yards per carry.
With many of the same cast of characters back on both lines, UK is going to have to count on improved play from its offensive line and more success in the passing game to keep U of L from feeling too comfortable filling the box.
For his part, when asked this week about UK's offense, Strong said he expects the Wildcats to try to eat up time of possession.
"They're very multiple," he said. "And since they are so good on defense, they may lean on their defense. It is all about stopping the run and controlling the ball with the short passing game and running the ball when they need to and running it effectively."
Watson says whatever name you give his offense, it begins with being able to run the ball. Whether he'll try to run it at the heart of the strength of UK's defense -- its interior defensive line and tackles Donte Rumpf (315 pounds) and Mister Cobble (331) -- or use more sweeps and outside zone calls, even zone reads.
"We are a West Coast system," running backs coach Kenny Carter said. "It gives us the opportunity to play two guys at the same time. Now, whether it's one guy at a fullback or one guy at what we call a P, or its one guy at the tailback position, it just helps us. We are going to split them out at receiver with two of them in the game. It's going to be fun."
That's one reason U of L isn't worried too much about naming a starter. In fact, when one enters the game for another, Carter said, "It's nearly seamless."
Still, the fact remains that U of L is coming off a season in which it ranked 93rd nationally in rushing offense, three spots behind UK at No. 90.
With many of the same names back, Sunday's season opener likely rests with whichever side was better able to resuscitate its running game.
Same as always.
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