John Clay: Loss to Louisville a bad sign for Kentucky

Tougher teams ahead on schedule

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 18, 2011 

It wasn't that difficult to tell the difference Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

Louisville played like a team that had listened to its head coach last week.

Trouble was, Kentucky played like a team that had listened to the Louisville coach, too.

Louisville 24, Kentucky 17.

After all, it was Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong who had all but challenged his young team's manhood during the week, after U of L lost last week to Florida International, what with his Cardinals coming to Lexington to face a team it had lost to for four consecutive years.

Strong said publicly that Kentucky was the better team, that he didn't think his Cardinals could beat the Cats. Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said he didn't buy it, of course, that his old friend Strong was playing the Lou Holtz card, talking up the opponent.

Yet Kentucky played as if it believed it. The Cats once again started slowly, tentatively, trailing at halftime for the 11th time in the last 13 games. The offense performed only when its back was against the wall, late in the first half when down 14-3, then late in the game when down 24-10.

In both cases, too little, too late.

Once again, Kentucky got too little from its offensive line, a unit that was expected to be a strength.

"It hasn't happened," Phillips said.

Training camp injuries and a lack of continuity have taken their toll in the trenches.

Since 1996, the team that had won the rushing battle in this series had won the scoreboard. No different on this night.

Kentucky finished with a meager 35 yards rushing on 32 carries.

"That's not good enough," said Phillips.

Louisville's offensive line, which had been knocked when the Cardinals failed to mount much of a rushing attack the first two games, paved the way for the 'Ville to rush for 181 yards on 40 carries.

The Kentucky defense that had looked so good the first two weeks, giving up just one touchdown, controlling the run, got pushed around.

Meanwhile, UK's offense never had an answer for Louisville's attacking defense, its array of blitzes and quarterback pressures.

UK quarterback Morgan Newton was sacked six times. He ran for his life at least six more.

Now, it will be the Cats fighting for their lives.

Bottom line, Kentucky lost to a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East, that on this night was led by its second-string quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, a true freshman who replaced Will Stein after the U of L starter injured his shoulder in the first quarter.

Didn't matter. Louisville's most important player wasn't its quarterback. It was those big bodies up on both sides of the line.

"A game of missed opportunities," Phillips called it afterward.

Thing was, for Kentucky, this was a huge opportunity to miss. Louisville has the makings of a good young team. But Louisville isn't Florida (Sept. 24). It isn't LSU (Oct. 1). It isn't South Carolina (Oct. 8). Not by a long shot.

If Kentucky's players listened to what the Louisville coach had to say, then now the Cats will have to listen to a disappointed and angry fan base that was not in a good mood when the season started, much less now, as evidenced by the 6 percent drop in season-ticket sales and the season-opening crowd which was the lowest since 2006.

Last night's crowd of 68,170 was the first time since the stadium was expanded in 1999 that a UK-U of L game did not draw at least 70,000.

"We've got tough kids," said Phillips afterward.

They're going to have be tough.

This year, if Kentucky can't beat Louisville, there could be miles of bad road up ahead.

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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