How Kentucky and Louisville match up — with a game prediction:
The value of Stephen Johnson to Kentucky was starkly apparent in last week’s bowl-eligibility-clinching win over Austin Peay. Trying to give Johnson a night off to rest an injured left knee, UK started walk-on quarterback Luke Wright against the winless Governors. Austin Peay was ahead 13-0 when Johnson entered the game, steadied the Kentucky ship and launched a 49-0 UK scoring surge. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson remains the Heisman Trophy favorite after a rough outing in U of L’s 36-10 loss at Houston. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore absorbed 11 sacks. He finished with, for him, pedestrian numbers through the air (20-of-43 for 211 yards) and on the ground (25 carries, 33 net yards). He lost a crucial second-half fumble. Former Lexington Catholic star Kyle Bolin, the hero of U of L’s 44-40 win over UK in 2014, remains the Cardinals backup.
The dynamic duo of Boom Williams (1,072 yards) and Benny Snell (1,006) have given Kentucky two 1,000-yards rushers in the same season for the first time ever. Since returning from a broken left hand, UK senior Jojo Kemp has run for 148 yards and three TDs in the past two games. Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff is quietly enjoying a strong senior season (777 yards, 6.7 yards a carry, six TDs). Last year, the 5-9, 202-pound Miami product ran for 62 yards and two TDs vs. Kentucky.
In the second half of the season, the veteran core of Kentucky’s receiving corps — Jeff Badet, Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson — has been haunted by an old problem: Dropped passes. Last week, Badet dropped what would have been a sure TD pass on a post pattern and Baker dropped a short flip pass. At Tennessee, Johnson dropped what should have been a crucial third-down catch. Louisville’s James Quick (38 catches, 621 yards, six TDs) needs two receptions vs. UK to set a career high for a season. The former Trinity star caught a 35-yard TD that tied the game at 24 last season vs. UK. UAB transfer Jamari Staples (35 catches, two TDs) and Jaylen Smith (25 catches, six TDs), both 6-foot-4, give U of L size on the perimeter.
Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad made an athletic catch of a high pass on a 14-yard touchdown vs. Austin Peay. On the season, the 6-5, 245-pound sophomore has 15 catches and four TDs. Louisville’s Cole Hikutini (42 catches, 551 yards, seven TDs) is one of the better tight ends in the country. While going 7-1 against Kentucky in his career, Bobby Petrino has made great use of dragging the tight end against the grain over the middle for receptions.
In the final regular-season game of Jon Toth’s standout career, the UK center will face a major challenge in U of L nose tackle DeAngelo Brown. Louisville sophomore left tackle Geron Christian is considered the most talented member of a Cardinals front that allowed 11 sacks at Houston. Senior center Tobijah Hughley, a Lafayette High School product, will play against his hometown university in his final game in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Kentucky “rush end” Denzil Ware has produced a strong season (54 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks). Now the backup nose guard, Matt Elam has had five of his nine tackles this season in the past two games. Louisville nose tackle DeAngelo Brown is a force in the middle with 11 TFL among his 34 total tackles.
After Kentucky WLB Jordan Jones (90 tackles, 12 TFL) had to leave the Tennessee game early with back spasms, the Wildcats’ defense was strafed by dual-threat QB Joshua Dobbs. Having the speedy, 6-2, 220-pound sophomore from Youngstown, Ohio, on the field against Lamar Jackson is crucial. In the 3-4 defense, Louisville OLBs James Hearns (eight sacks, 11 TFL) and Devonte’ Fields (five sacks, eight TFL) will put stress on the UK offensive tackles. ILB Keith Kelsey leads U of L with 74 tackles.
Kentucky cornerback Chris Westry and strong safety Mike Edwards each had their first interceptions of 2016 vs. Austin Peay. Six different Wildcats DBs now have picks this season, led by corner Derrick Baity with three. Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander has two games (at Clemson, at Virginia) with two interceptions and has five picks for the season. Strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, the transfer from Georgia, has missed the past two games with an injury. The 6-5, 228-pound Harvey-Clemons (56 tackles, two pass breakups) is still listed first-team on the Louisville depth chart.
When Mark Stoops was asked this week about Kentucky’s punting woes, the UK coach replied “Do you have any ideas?” Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis (13-of-16 field goals with a long of 51) has had a strong year. Kentucky’s coverage and return units have also been solid. Louisville place-kicker Blanton Creque, a product of Collins High School in Shelbyville, has been accurate (12-of-15) but has not shown much range (long of 39 yards). Punter Mason King has punted 44 times and has caused 23 fair catches. Jaire Alexander returned a punt 69 yards for a TD vs. Florida State.
Louisville 42, Kentucky 26