LOUISVILLE — Four years ago — when Bobby Petrino, Brian Brohm and Co. obliterated Kentucky 59-28 to keep the Governor's Cup in The Ville for the seventh time in eight years — many UK fans would've signed over their entire 401k for just one win over the Cards.
How that worm has turned.
On a sun-drenched Saturday before 55,327 in the newly expanded Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Kentucky beat Louisville 23-16. So far has the UK football program come since that long night in 2006 that after a fourth straight Blue victory over U of L, some of the Wildcats were using words like "hugely disappointing" after the win.
For Kentucky, the outcome was all good. How the outcome was arrived at, well, it left room for improvement.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
First the good. Joker Phillips got the victory he almost had to have in his matchup with fellow rookie head coach Charlie Strong.
After inheriting Steve Kragthorpe's mess, the first-year U of L coach basically had a free shot in his first Governor's Cup. Taking over a UK program that has played in four straight bowls, Phillips was going to get all the heat if UK lost.
Much-maligned Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline was sharp (17-for-26, 217 yards) while entering his name in the history of this rivalry by becoming the first QB to go 3-0 as a starter.
UK stars Derrick Locke (104 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and Randall Cobb (80 yards rushing; a spectacular one-handed catch; a crucial 19-yard pass to Jordan Aumiller that helped the Cats close out the game) did what they do. They made game-winning plays.
At Kentucky, there are no bad wins over Louisville.
Yet the Cats have much they will have to clean up if they are going to take the much-discussed "next step forward" in 2010.
UK (11 penalties for 90 yards) won Saturday in spite of a spate of mental errors.
"We made way too many mistakes," Phillips said. "We had way too many penalties and way too many dumb penalties at crucial times."
One Louisville scoring drive was extended when the Cats' Collins Ukwu was called for offsides after a pass had fallen incomplete on third-and-17. That one led to a Louisville field goal.
Leading 23-13 and with a chance to put the Cardinals away early in the fourth period, Kentucky had a third-and-goal at the Cardinals' 2-yard line nullified when left tackle Chandler Burden jumped before the snap.
Not only did Kentucky fail to get a touchdown, Ryan Tydlacka missed a chip-shot field goal.
With only five minutes left in the game and UK clinging to a 23-13 lead, the Kentucky defense forced an incomplete pass on 4th-and-17 at the Cats 37.
Instead of game over, however, Cats linebacker Ridge Wilson was called for roughing U of L quarterback Adam Froman. That, too, eventually led to a Louisville field goal.
"Luckily it didn't turn out to be game-changing," Wilson said of his late-hit penalty. "It was a stupid play."
UK won Saturday in spite of never really closing the door on Louisville. Largely because of the mental miscues — and a gutty effort by U of L — Kentucky was never able to put away a game it led 23-6.
"I think we got a little too comfortable, something we can't do," Cobb said. "We've got to make sure we stay on top of it and keep putting points on the board."
Said sophomore wide receiver La'Rod King: "We were hugely disappointed. It's the same problem we had last year. We've got to learn how to finish as a team."
Hartline said the good news was that many of the ill-timed penalties that kept UK from putting the game out of reach came from players getting their first extended playing time.
"It was a lack of concentration, a lack of focus," he said. "But several of them came from first-year guys, or guys who are playing for the first time. We clean those things up, we're going to have something."
Off one game, I'd say Kentucky has a chance to have a very explosive offense. The verdict on the defense is very much out.
Still, Saturday showed that the UK football program already has "something."
It's come so far that it can beat Louisville and be (a little) disappointed with how it did so.
Four years ago, what were the odds of that?