LOUISVILLE — First game, first series, third defensive play of the season. Kentucky had a chance to make a statement.
A fumbled punt return had Louisville pinned in the shadow of its goal post.
Without Danny Trevathan, without Winston Guy, a new-look Kentucky defense had a chance to put its stamp on our state's marquee football game right at the get-go.
Instead, Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville's splendid young quarterback, planted his foot in the end zone and threw a perfect strike down the right sideline to a well-covered Damian Copeland. The redshirt freshman receiver beat UK corner Martavius Neloms for the ball.
Louisville had done more than complete a 23-yard pass. Buoyed by that escape, U of L drove 99 yards for a touchdown.
"That one play was a swing, swing, swing of seven points, of momentum, of emotion, of everything," said Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter afterward.
A tone had been set.
By the time the first half was over, the Cardinals had added TD drives of 85 yards and 93 yards.
On a rainy, dreary Sunday, the largest crowd in the history of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium (55,386) watched Louisville whip Kentucky 32-14 to win the Governor's Cup for the second straight season. Given the negative climate that surrounds UK football, this was exactly the opposite of what Joker Phillips needed to happen.
Simply put, the Kentucky defense and its veteran line — one that was thought to be UK's strength — got physically manhandled by Charlie Strong's Cards.
UK could not stop the run, allowing not one, but two U of L backs to run for more than 100 yards. Senorise Perry had 108 yards, including 47 on a touchdown run when he broke through a tackle at the line of scrimmage and then roared untouched into the end zone.
"The holes were huge," Perry said. "I was excited to run through them because I didn't expect them to be that big."
U of L's Jeremy Wright ran wild, too, going for 105 and three more TDs. With Louisville outrushing Kentucky 219-93, it marked the 17th straight year in which the team that ran for the most yards won the UK-U of L game.
"There were too many gaping, gashing holes in the defense," a dejected Minter said afterward.
At least, UK's defensive effort was balanced. The Cats couldn't stop the pass, either.
Bridgewater, an emerging star as a true sophomore, completed 19 of 21 for passes for 232 yards. On those rare occasions when UK pressured him, the Miami product showed impressive elusiveness and kept plays alive until he could find open receivers.
"He keeps his eyes down the field when he scrambles," Neloms said of the U of L quarterback. "He makes plays with his arm and his legs."
Unfortunately for UK, the Cats appeared to have precious few play-makers of their own on defense.
A year ago, with senior stars Trevathan and Guy leading the way, Kentucky ended the season on a defensive uptick, holding Georgia to 19 points and 317 yards and Tennessee to seven points and 276 yards in the last two games of 2011.
With Trevathan and Guy now in the NFL, any hope that the UK defense could carry that momentum over into 2012 was gone by halftime Sunday.
When a Kentucky defensive coordinator is being compared in the social media to Larry New and Mike Major — two mostly ineffective UK defensive leaders from the Bill Curry and Hal Mumme days, respectively — it's a bad sign. Minter was getting that treatment throughout Sunday's game.
To his credit, he took responsibility post-game for Kentucky's dismal defensive play.
"It's alarming that we are sitting here having this discussion, that we gave up so much and played so poorly," Minter said. "... The obvious thing is, we didn't play well. We didn't coach well. We didn't do a lot of things."
What made UK's defensive ineptitude even more frustrating is that the Kentucky offense — punchless in 2011 — showed a revived heartbeat Sunday behind sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith and a no-huddle attack heavy on short passes.
"We let the offense down," Kentucky defensive end Collins Ukwu said. "They are a lot better offense than last year."
On a dispiriting day, the tone was set for the Kentucky defense on its third play of the day.
Suffice to say, for Wildcats backers, it was a most disheartening tone.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com