When the Kentucky running backs see that they’re facing a top-10 rush defense in the country, they sit up a little straighter in meetings.
“It also drives our offensive line,” UK’s Boom Williams said. “It pretty much drives the whole offense together.”
When Louisville’s defensive players see that they’re facing one of the nation’s top running teams, they take note, too.
“We know they’re going to run the ball and that’s good for us,” senior linebacker Keith Kelsey said of facing Kentucky. “We’ve done great this whole season at stopping the run and it’s another opportunity to go out there and do the same thing.”
So something has to give on Saturday when the Cats travel to No. 11 Louisville — the Cardinals are yielding just 99.8 yards a game.
Kentucky has been a run-happy offense all season behind Williams and true freshman Benny Snell, who have run for more than 1,000 yards each.
In three games this season UK has had four or more rushing touchdowns. Four is the total number of rushing TDs the Cardinals have allowed all season.
“We need to continue to run the ball successfully,” UK’s co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said Tuesday. UK has averaged 275.1 yards a game in its last nine games, nearly 100 more yards than opponents were allowing going into the game against the Cats. “We’ve got to be able to run the ball with our running backs and our wildcat, whatever we gotta do to be able to run the ball successfully because they stop the run really, really well.”
The Cardinals (9-2), who have held five straight opponents under 100 yards, do an excellent job on containment on first and second downs. So Kentucky has to find a way, any way, to stay ahead of the chains, Williams said.
“Make sure that every guy is doing their job and make sure we’re successful enough to give ourselves a chance to win the game,” said the junior running back, whom Coach Mark Stoops said would carry much of the load this week after sitting most of the second half in a blowout win over Austin Peay.
Williams has had some success over the Cardinals in his two seasons. As a freshman last time at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, he had 126 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
“You play a fast defense, you want fast guys,” co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran surmised.
Before sustaining his elbow injury last season, Williams was averaging 5.3 yards a carry against Louisville.
“It’s going to be a long, hard tough game,” Williams said, “but like I said, if we play like we know how to play, we definitely have a shot.”
Kentucky’s ground game has given it a shot in many games this season.
It has some confidence because of what it did against top rushing defenses in the Southeastern Conference like Alabama and Vanderbilt.
UK sits at No. 17 nationally and third in the league in rushing offense, averaging 242.4 yards a game with 27 scores, second most in the SEC.
“Every defense that we’ve faced this year has been pretty good up front,” said Gran, who coaches the Cats’ running backs.
Statistically, Louisville’s run defense looks a lot like top-ranked Alabama’s. The Cardinals are allowing 2.7 yards a carry, second best in the country behind the Tide (2.17 yards).
Kentucky is averaging 5.5 yards per run with Williams leading the way at 7.3 yards per carry and Snell adding 6 yards per run. Senior Jojo Kemp (5.1 yards per carry) has been a complementary player. He also has the benefit of the freshest legs after missing games with a broken hand.
In each of the last two games, Kemp was recorded as having the fastest time of any UK player on the field.
Gran is hopeful that every part of UK’s ground attack will keep Louisville off-balance.
“At the end of the day it does become about us, our technique, our footwork, how we communicate,” Gran said. “That’s what we’ve done a great job of.”
Kentucky’s commitment to the run will make it a challenge to contain, Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino said.
“They now have a quarterback that can also run the ball and throw the ball deep and then they are running a lot of the wildcat game,” he said of quarterback Stephen Johnson and UK’s multiple looks out of the wildcat formation.
“They switch it up and I think that the installation of the quarterback has really helped because he has a strong arm and he can throw the deep ball. We need to do a good job of getting off blocks and recognize what they are trying to do.”
Kentucky at No. 11 Louisville
Noon Saturday (ESPN)