Lack of buzz belies Cats-Cards game

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 13, 2009 

John Clay

As Rich Brooks might say, "It's time to get fired up."

It's UK-U of L week, though my trusty antenna tells me there is less buzz surrounding this year's Cats-Cards grid matchup than in any time in recent memory.

Blame that on the tireless John Calipari's basketball booster shot or Rick Pitino's personal law and order episode or the fact that this isn't the traditional season opener and there was a momentum-killing off week for both teams involved.

Or blame it on the fact that most believe it a foregone conclusion that Kentucky will win this Saturday's high-noon matchup at Commonwealth Stadium.

There was nothing in the Cats' 42-0 thumping of Miami of Ohio in Cincinnati or Louisville's harder-than-it-should-have-been 30-10 victory over visiting Indiana State last Saturday to knock you off that premise.

Still, there's an interesting story line beyond the obvious one in which U of L Coach Steve Kragthorpe needs a win to help save his job.

For one of the few times since the series was re-launched in 1994, Kentucky will be playing the Cards as the accepted favorite.

That certainly wasn't the case from 2003-2006, Brooks' initial four years as the man in charge at Kentucky, when Louisville was clearly the better team and proved so on the field, cuffing the Cats by an average of over 20 points per game.

Kentucky wasn't the favorite in 2007, even though UK did ruin Kragthorpe's introduction to the series. The Cards were coming off an Orange Bowl victory and Brian Brohm was returning as U of L's quarterback for that matchup in Lexington.

Most felt the game would be tight, and it was, with UK winning 40-34 at Commonwealth, but most pre-game prognosticators gave the visitors the edge.

And Louisville was the popular if split choice last year. The game was at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Hunter Cantwell, who had performed well as a backup, was taking over as the starting Louisville quarterback, while the unproven Mike Hartline was grabbing the UK reins for the first time.

Yet Kentucky won easily 27-2. The Cats continued to a 7-6 season that included a third straight bowl victory. And after rebounding from the opening loss to win five of their next six, the Cards ended the season on the sour note of a five-game losing streak.

The pessimism that produced hasn't abated. Plenty of U of L grid fans have all been dreading this campaign for fear of a total meltdown, that the cliff-drive from a BCS bowl contender to a Big East cellar-dweller will be confirmed.

Little about U of L's win over hapless Indiana State would alter that perception. ISU entered Papa John's saddled with a 27-game losing streak. And yet the Sycamores led the Cards 7-3 early. Louisville was flagged 14 times for 128 yards. More alarming, the home team converted just one of nine third downs.

Was the poor performance a product of first-game jitters? Or are the Cards simply not very good?

Before this weekend's games, Jeff Sagarin's trusty computer ranked Kentucky as the 40th best team in the country. It placed Louisville at No. 83.

But such separation puts the host Cats in an unfamiliar spot — that of the expected victor — and a spot in which a loss to the arch-rival would surely be considered a serious setback.

It will be interesting to see how the Cats handle the view.

After all, you never know how a team is going to react to a new situation until it is in that new situation.

That should be good for some buzz right there.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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