John Clay: Neither team firing on all cylinders, but it's still UK-UofL

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 12, 2011 

John Clay

To face facts, Saturday night is not shaping up as a clash of the titans.

True, it's Kentucky-Louisville and all that, which in this Commonwealth will always be a big deal to the supporters of both institutions, whether the competition be academics, or funding, or volleyball, or soccer, or basketball, or (in Saturday's case) football.

It's just that in football, on this particular September, in this particular year, neither program is close to resembling juggernaut mode.

There is no denying that Kentucky's record is 2-0. But the Cats were outgained in each game, first by Western Kentucky and then by Central Michigan. Those two opponents won a combined five games last season. And in Saturday's home opener against CMU, the Cats trailed 13-3 in the second quarter before rebounding in the second half to better the Chippewas.

Meanwhile, Louisville is 1-1. Charlie Strong's team zipped to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter over OVC member Murray State, then saw its offense shut down in what turned out to be a 21-9 win. Then Friday night at Papa John's Stadium, Louisville lost 24-17 to a Florida International program that had never before beaten a BCS conference school.

Neither team appears to have inspired its fan base so far.

Louisville's Papa John's Stadium seats 55,000 since it was expanded last season, yet the Cards drew just 46,157 for the Thursday night opener against Murray, and 47,228 for the Friday night game with FIU.

Kentucky opened before just 24,599 in Nashville for that Thursday night opener against WKU. Then Saturday, not even the new video boards could keep the school from drawing just 58,022, the smallest Commonwealth crowd since 2006, and the smallest crowd for a home opener since that same year.

Of course, 2006 was the season that Rich Brooks got the UK program in forward motion. The Cats had gone 2-9 in 2004 and 3-8 in 2005. They opened the '06 campaign by being spanked 59-28 by the Cards in the 'Ville, but finished that season with a flourish, winning five of their last six, including a Music City Bowl win over Clemson.

The fear I hear is Joker Phillips' program is closer to where UK was in 2005 than building on the four consecutive bowl trips that highlighted the Brooks' tenure. That fear was amplified by that uninspired effort in the Music City against Western.

But last Saturday brought rays of light, especially where new coordinator Rick Minter's defense is concerned. Kentucky intercepted nine passes last season. The Cats have six picks already this year. After Central Michigan moved the ball almost at will its first three series Saturday, Minter adjusted and the Chips did not score the rest of the way.

On offense, Josh Clemons' exhibited a burst on his 87-yard touchdown run that even Phillips admitted he was not sure existed. Quarterback Morgan Newton contributed to the running game in a way that made you believe it could be valuable to the Cat attack.

As for Louisville, yes, the Cards were beaten by a Sun Belt team Friday, but Strong's squad outgained the Panthers 446-293. U of L was victimized by big plays and turnovers — FIU did not turn the ball over; U of L lost it twice.

What we have here are two young teams each led by second-year head coaches. Louisville's most talented players lack experience. Kentucky's most talented players lack experience. Strong said Friday that UK owned the edge at the moment, but you would have to think the gap is not so wide that the Cats are a sure bet come game-time.

A better bet is that, while both sides may be down a bit this year, there will be plenty of interest come Saturday.

It is UK-U of L, after all.

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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