It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass. Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how the Governor’s Cup rivalry game between Kentucky and Louisville might play out on Saturday.
ANOTHER TEST FOR THE OFFENSIVE LINE
It seems fitting that a regular season characterized by Kentucky’s inability to protect star quarterback Will Levis will end with a matchup against the defense that leads the country in sacks.
“It’s a huge challenge,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “I’ve been very impressed watching them on tape. Their team speed, and then they have a couple of guys that have been multi-year starters. You can see they play well off each other. They’ve got some really good pass rushers.
“… Then they’ve got some corners that they’re going to be aggressive, they’re going to put their hands on you, they’re going to try to grab you. They’re going to do what they have to do to disrupt your timing so the pass rush can get home, and they’ve very good at it. They overwhelmed Pitt and overwhelmed Wake and some of those schools, so we’ve got to be at our best.”
Louisville leads the country in sacks per game (3.73) while Kentucky ranks 125th of 131 teams in sacks allowed per game (3.64).
The good news for Kentucky is the offensive line is coming off one of its best performances of the season, surrendering just one sack against Georgia’s top-ranked defense. Levis also looked more mobile in that game than he has for the majority of the season, increasing the chances he can scramble away from Louisville’s pass rushers.
Still, Scangarello made it clear that even though Georgia might boast the best defense in the country, the task against Louisville’s pass rush in particular could be even more difficult.
“Weren’t in one of those must-pass situations (against Georgia) except for a couple of third-and-longs,” Scangarello said. “In those situations they were rushing four and our guys did a nice job of just really blocking their man with good technique. This week, it’s a far greater challenge in the sense that they’re going to blitz from all over, they’re going to move constantly and they have a really exotic third-down package with their dime stuff that they do a really good job. That’s really how they’ve caused some real problems for teams in the ACC.”
CHRIS RODRIGUEZ RECORD WATCH
Kentucky fans might be focused on whether Saturday will be the last game in a Wildcat uniform for Levis, but the attention should be shared with star running back Chris Rodriguez, who still has an outside shot at Benny Snell’s career rushing yard record with two games left in his college career.
Rodriguez enters the regular-season finale with 3,524 rushing yards in 45 games as a Wildcat. He needs 350 yards between the Governor’s Cup game and Kentucky’s bowl game to pass Snell’s record (3,873).
Averaging 175 rushing yards per game in the final two games is a difficult ask, but Rodriguez has topped 160 yards in a game twice this season since returning from a four-game suspension to start the season. He has 246 rushing yards in two career games against Louisville, averaging a whopping 9.8 yards per carry in his career against the Cardinals. Kentucky’s late-season struggles also mean the Wildcats might play a less exciting opponent in the bowl, increasing the chances of Rodriguez squaring off against a worse run defense.
If Rodriguez does not have a big game against Louisville, though, it will be interesting to see if he elects to play in the bowl game. Levis’ status for the bowl is already uncertain after he told reporters this week he will discuss playing in the bowl with his family after the Governor’s Cup.
KENTUCKY FOOTBALL INJURY REPORT
Kentucky found out left tackle Kenneth Horsey would be unable to play against Georgia during warmups due to an undisclosed health issue. Stoops reported initial tests have been encouraging, but he has not committed to the senior offensive lineman returning to the field this week.
“Things seem to be positive as it relates to his health,” Stoops said Monday. “Not finalized yet, so I can’t say any more than that other than it’s looking good and continue to make sure we check all the boxes and make sure the young man is taken care of properly.”
With Horsey out, sophomore Deondre Buford filled in at left tackle against Georgia. He could be in line for a larger role again this weekend if Horsey is unavailable or limited, adding even more concern about UK’s ability to stand up against the Louisville pass rush.
Stoops has listed super senior weakside linebacker DeAndre Square as “day to day” for the last two weeks, but he has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Super senior middle linebacker Jacquez Jones has missed the last six games with a foot injury that required surgery, but he continues to hint on social media he hopes to play again this season.
Saturday will be the last home game for Square and Jones.
There was no update this week on the status of senior wide receiver Tayvion Robinson, who Stoops said was “banged up” in the Georgia game. Robinson spent most of the second half of the game on the sideline with his helmet still on but not in the offensive huddles.
Kentucky 28, Louisville 17: Kentucky does not look capable of imposing its will in the same way it has in the last three blowouts, but I have a hard time believing the talent gap has closed enough from a year ago to lead to a Louisville win, regardless of recent form. Rodriguez should be particularly motivated for a big game with Snell’s record still theoretically within reach. The Louisville pass rush is a worry, but the guess here is Kentucky’s play-action game is effective enough to limit some of that concern.
MVP: Levis. This game brought out the best in Levis a year ago. The image of him throwing “L’s down” after his four rushing touchdowns undoubtedly still irks Louisville players, but it is difficult for me to imagine Levis ending his Kentucky career with a clunker (and the chance this is his last game is real). He won’t rush for 100 yards again, but the increased mobility on display against Georgia makes me think he runs just enough to keep the Louisville defense honest.
The spread: As of Friday, Kentucky was favored by three points, but it was Louisville that was included in the playoff committee top 25 this week. Kentucky has won the last three games in the series by a combined 153-44 margin. Despite that recent dominance, Louisville was actually made a three-point favorite a year ago. Kentucky responded with a 52-21 win in Cardinal Stadium.
Will Levis total offensive yards: 275.
Chris Rodriguez rushing yards: 150.
Louisville sacks: 4.
Combined unsportsmanlike conduct penalties: 3.
THE LAST WORD
“In this time of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking about the things I’m thankful for, and one of the first things I think about is just this community here, the people here. The coaching staff for believing in me here. The team for rallying around me and trusting in me to be their guy, be their leader. The community for just welcoming me with open arms. Could have gone very differently when you enter that transfer portal. If it weren’t for Kentucky, who knows where I’d be, who knows what the future looks like for me. Just crazy to think how different my life was a couple years ago compared to now, and very thankful for all the people that have helped me get to where I am.”
— Levis on how transferring to Kentucky changed his life
Louisville at Kentucky
When: 3 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Louisville 7-4 (4-4 ACC), Kentucky 6-5 (3-5 SEC)
Series: Kentucky leads 18-15
Last meeting: Kentucky won 52-21 on Nov. 27, 2021, at Louisville