CRAWFORD | Pre-snap read: Louisville vs. Kentucky -- 5 things to watch
Eric Crawford provides five keys to watch during today's rivalry game between Louisville and Kentucky at Kroger Field in Lexington.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For the past three years, Kentucky and Louisville have delivered exciting football games with all of the crazy twists you’d expect from a rivalry – though some of the results were not quite expected.
Today, a Kentucky team that for much of the season had been viewed as a team that was taking a step forward needs to finish with a win at home over Louisville to keep that assumption in place heading into the postseason and beyond.
A Louisville team that has been universally seen as regressing, despite having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, needs a road win over its rival to salvage any fragment of good feeling it might still generate heading into the postseason and beyond.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky. The game will be broadcast by the SEC Network.
Some things to key on as the game unfolds:
1). WHICH LOUISVILLE DEFENSE SHOWS UP? If it’s the Louisville defense that we saw from Game 1 through the loss to Wake Forest, write this one down as a Wildcats win. That group couldn’t tackle, got no pressure on quarterbacks and could not cover, being exposed in the secondary by any quarterback who had a decent arm and acceptable accuracy.
Over the past two weeks, however, since the full-speed return of preseason All-American cornerback Jaire Alexander, the defense has looked like a different team. While it hasn’t been playing offensive juggernauts, necessarily, it still has tackled better, gotten to the quarterback more and put up some resistance in the passing game.
Could Alexander’s presence alone account for that? Probably not. But he might account for a good bit of it.
“He’s a big influence on that side of the ball. I think he does for the defense what Lamar (Jackson) does for the offense,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “He inspires a lot of confidence.”
Also don’t discount the need for some NFL hopefuls, especially along Louisville’s offensive front, to want to put some good things on tape in their final college opportunities.
2). KENTUCKY’S RECEIVERS. It has been true for more than just this season – if you can throw deep with any accuracy on Louisville, you can take the top off its defense and exploit a lot of things. Kentucky showed this successfully in last season’s upset with, with Stephen Johnson hitting on several long throws.
Johnson set the tone on the game’s first play, hitting Garrett Johnson with a 75-yard bomb for a touchdown to set the tone. He caught a 63-yarder on virtually the same play later in the game. Expect Kentucky to test Louisville deep early – and possibly often – in today’s game.
Garrett Johnson would be a big part of that effort. He’s second on the UK list for most catches of 40 yards or more for his career, with six. The guy at the top of that list – Craig Yeast – has a son, Russ, who will be playing cornerback for Louisville today.
Expect Johnson to go at Yeast and corner Trumaine Washington. Though UK’s strength all season has been the running game behind RB Benny Snell, the air could hold the key for the Wildcats.
3). WHO WINS THE GROUND BATTLE? For years, this was the game’s sole determining factor, until UK had success with the deep ball a year ago.
Louisville, as a team, is rushing for 6.4 yards per carry, largely behind Lamar Jackson’s 6.8 per carry. For Kentucky, limiting Jackson’s long runs is a first step. But it’s complicated by the emergence of two running backs for the Cardinals over the past couple of weeks. Fully healthy from injuries, Malik Williams ran for 180 yards on nine carries and Dae Williams added 49 yards on eight carries. If those guys have a big day, it’ll open things up for Jackson.
Kentucky’s running game is a bit unorthodox, and that worries Petrino and his defense, who haven’t seen much in the way of the “Wildcat” package this season. This defense has also struggled heavily against the run in 2017. Boston College’s A.J. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns against the Cardinals in an upset win in September. It was the most rushing yards a Louisville defense has ever yielded to a single player.
Snell is capable of putting up that kind of number if the Louisville front seven doesn’t show up. He’s the first UK running back – ever – to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and his 26 rushing touchdowns this season are a school single-season record.
4). QUARTERBACK SUPREMACY. While Jackson put up impressive numbers against Kentucky last season, he threw one crucial interception and fumbled in the Kentucky red zone late to give the Wildcats a shot at the upset.
Those things have been on his mind leading up to this game, but Jackson has been known to press a bit for big games, coming out way too keyed up for the Cardinals’ game against Clemson earlier this season, probably his only truly subpar game in a Louisville uniform.
Jackson, however, is far more capable of making plays through the air than he was a season ago, and has been virtually unstoppable the past two weeks. Two years ago, Jackson came off the bench to throw for 130 yards and run for 186 in leading Louisville out of a 21-0 hole for a 38-24 win.
Last season, Jackson ran for 171 yards against Kentucky and threw for 281. So in two seasons against UK, Jackson has carried 42 times for 357 yards, 8.5 yards per carry, and four touchdowns.
It was Johnson, however, who had the better overall day last season, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns and running for a team-best 83 yards on only eight carries.
Johnson, more importantly, found a way to win, something he has done his whole career at Kentucky.
5). THE WEEK-BEFORE FACTOR. Not much has been said about this, but it’s worth noting. Last season, UK came into its game against Louisville off a breather, a 49-13 beat-down of Austin Peay. The year before, it prepped for Louisville with a similar 58-10 rout of Charlotte, and the year before that it had a week off before taking Louisville to the limit in a 44-40 loss.
Louisville, meanwhile, has been pushed in the week prior to Kentucky. A year ago it was coming off a disappointing 36-10 loss to Houston that killed its College Football Playoff hopes. The year before it was coming off a loss at Pittsburgh. And in the first year of the Thanksgiving-weekend edition of the rivalry, it was coming off an emotional win at Notre Dame.
This year, Kentucky is coming off a disappointing 42-13 blowout loss to Georgia, while Louisville is coming off a relatively easy 56-10 win over Syracuse. Whether those have any bearing on this game will be interesting, but in any event, it is a change from past seasons.
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