Even the coaches get a little more emotional about rivalry week.
In his first stint as Louisville’s head coach, Bobby Petrino said the number of Kentucky fans in his own neighborhood frustrated him.
“It upset me and I’d get mad,” Petrino recalled this week. You know, tell my kids to go egg their windows. … Actually, I didn’t tell them that, but I wanted to.”
But one thing coaches learn early in their careers and players have to learn is that emotion doesn’t win big games.
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Getting too high off a 21-point lead or getting distracted by a pre-game skirmish on the field — among the many things that have happened in this rivalry in just the past two seasons — doesn’t help your team win.
“If you also remember in both of those games the last two (years), that emotion has hurt us,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops, whose team has lost five straight to its instate rival.
He pointed to a penalty two years ago when a freshman offensive lineman came off the bench and caused a 15-yard penalty. Last season at Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats were riding high off a big lead and had another key penalty.
“It’s not about emotion,” Stoops continued. “We need to have emotion on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in our preparation and focus and intensity during the week to put us in position to win.
“Without that we’ll have no chance. And then when we get there on Saturday, yes, they have to play with emotion, but you also have to have a discipline.”
It’s about preparation — something Stoops was none too pleased with on Wednesday after practice — and effort.
“It’s not just you’re gonna get so jacked up to beat somebody,” he said of the Cats, a double-digit underdog going into this game on Saturday at No. 11 Louisville (9-2). “You can’t win a game on that alone. But again, without that, you don’t have much of a chance because you don’t put much into your prep.”
It’s why the coaches have been trying to treat this like every other game this season and why the players are downplaying its import while the fans do not.
The message has soaked in for Kentucky’s players like senior running back Jojo Kemp, who said the main thing about this game is to stay even-keeled.
“Zero-zero the whole game,” Kemp said. “Just focus on what you need to focus on, and then like I said before let everything take care of itself.”
The Cats (6-5) may have a built in security blanket this season in quarterback Stephen Johnson, who never seems to get too high or too low, no matter how big the stage or opponent.
“It’s good to go into any game with a guy that’s even-keeled, who understands that he’s not going to let emotions get on top of him or anything,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said of Johnson.
“Where you get into a position where, it’s not only going too good or too bad, where you can make good decisions and continue to do the right thing anytime you’re out there.”
Johnson, who was an immediate calming force for Kentucky last week early against Austin Peay, sounded much more like a coach than a player when he discussed his plan for his first Cats-Cards rivalry week.
“I mean, really take the same approach as any other game,” he said. “Don’t try to get too high, don’t try to get too low. You just really try to stay even, prepare the same.”
‘He’s very electric’
Not many outside of the Louisville locker room knew what a unique talent quarterback Lamar Jackson was until this time a year ago.
It was in this rivalry game last season that Jackson had his breakout game as a backup, rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and throwing for 130 yards and another score in the Cardinals’ come-from-behind win at Commonwealth Stadium.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have had all those interceptions at the beginning of the game last year and we would’ve kept him on the bench,” Stoops joked this week. “Would’ve been the best thing.”
Because this season, he’s been a beast. He’s had a hand in 47 scores this season and is second in the nation in total offense at 406.9 yards a game.
Jackson, the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, leads the nation in rushing touchdowns with 19 and is eighth in the country in rushing yards with 1,367.
His leadership and toughness help him stand out even more, Stoops said.
It could be a long day for UK’s defense, which struggled mightily against a rushing quarterback two weeks ago at Tennessee, when Joshua Dobbs amassed 370 yards (223 passing and 147 rushing) and three touchdowns.
Jackson is even better.
“It’s going to be tough,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of Jackson. “He’s very electric, he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands. He has a strong arm.
“If you have two, three guys around him he still gets out of it. So, we just have to be sure tacklers. We have to be able to get him on the ground. We have to have guys in position to make the play.”
After a subpar performance against Houston last game, Petrino said he’s not worried about getting big numbers for Jackson this week to shore up Heisman votes.
“Our focus is completely on this game and winning this game and doing everything we need to do to be successful and win this football game,” Petrino said. “Like I said, send the seniors out with a win, and I think Lamar has been that way all year long.”
A rocky memory lane
As soon as Kentucky started prepping for Louisville, Boom Williams couldn’t help himself.
The running back’s mind went back to last season when he had to be helped off the field with a serious elbow injury that led to surgery and months of grueling rehab.
“Just replay of how I did that last year has been playing in my head over and over again,” said Williams, who had seven carries for 37 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game. “I’ve definitely been thinking about last year and I’m definitely ready for this opportunity that we have.”
Williams also was reminded of the big game he had at Louisville in 2014, which included 18 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman.
“I was just able to find some holes and be able to make some plays,” said Williams, whom Stoops said UK would lean on heavily in this game.
News and notes
▪ A victory over Louisville would give the Cats their first seven-win regular season since 2009 and be a contractual milestone for Stoops, who gets $250,000 extra for his seventh victory.
It will be senior day for 23 Louisville players in the game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. “We want to go out on the right note at Papa John Stadium,” said linebacker Keith Kelsey, one of those departing. “So it’s a very big game for us.”
UK’s last win over a ranked opponent on the road was at Louisville in 2002, 22-17. The Cardinals are 4-2 over the Cats when they’re ranked.
UK scores, schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)
Sept. 10: At Florida (L, 45-7)
Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO ST. (W, 62-42)
Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA (W, 17-10)
Oct. 1: At Alabama (L, 34-6)
Oct. 8: VANDERBILT (W, 20-13)
Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE (W, 40-38)
Oct. 29: At Missouri (W, 35-21)
Nov. 5: GEORGIA (L, 27-24)
Nov. 12: At Tennessee (L, 49-36)
Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY (W, 49-13)
Nov. 26: At Louisville, noon