UK Football

Kentucky football notebook: Win-or-go-home scenario drives Cats against Cards

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked off the field after the Kentucky at Tennessee football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Nov. 15, 2014. Tennessee won 50-16.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked off the field after the Kentucky at Tennessee football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Nov. 15, 2014. Tennessee won 50-16. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Succeed and proceed.

A catch phrase that the Kentucky basketball team adopted last season is just as important to football this weekend.

The Cats, who started the season with so much momentum, have lost five straight games. They have this one final regular-season game at Louisville to fix the problems and go back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

"I likened it to an elimination game," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "You win, you're in. You're in the bowl count. You lose, you go home for the holidays. Win you're in; lose you go home."

Head coach Mark Stoops hasn't pushed the elimination game concept as hard to the overall team. He thinks they understand what's at stake when they face the Cardinals (8-3), who have won three in a row in the in-state rivalry.

There's the usual pomp and circumstance, back and forth of the rivalry. But there's even more at stake for Kentucky this time around.

"It's pretty self-explanatory: If we win, we're going to play another game," Stoops said. "I've told them: They deserve it. They've worked hard."

Cats coaches and players have said the bad losses of the past couple of games are behind them, that the bye week has been beneficial. They want to show it against Louisville, which is playing for a potential Orange Bowl bid if things go to script.

"There is no reason to be tense or to go play tight," Stoops said. "I don't anticipate that. I'd like to see us play with that great passion and energy that we did for most of the season."

UK's players say they don't want to end the season on a sour note, on a six-game slide after feeling like they made so much progress. Quarterback Patrick Towles said a win on Saturday at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium would make this a "successful season" for Kentucky (5-6).

"We go play in a bowl game and everybody forgets about the last five or six," he said.

"We're hungry for sure. Hungry for sure. ... Hopefully we play desperate, you know. Hopefully we play hungry."

Would getting that sixth win over an archrival make it extra special?

For Louisville native and reformed Cardinals fan Jason Hatcher, it's about more than getting that sixth win.

"Not only for me would it be awesome, but for the team and the program, for the simple fact that it's a rivalry," the UK defensive end said. "It's the last game of the year. What better position to be in than to get the sixth win against your archrival?"

Sipping a bottle of water as the question came up, Stoops smiled.

"I really don't care who we get it against," he said. "I'd just love to get it."

Run and done?

The team that wins the game on the ground wins the game, or so history tells us from the last 18 straight games in this series.

That could spell trouble for Kentucky, which hasn't rushed for more yardage than its opponent since Oct. 11 (Louisiana-Monroe) and has been held to 103 yards or less on the ground in four of its past five games, all losses.

The Cats face a Louisville defense that is holding opponents to 88.5 yards rushing a game, third-best in the country, and just seven rushing TDs, second-best nationally.

Cardinals foes are averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per rush this season and Louisville has held seven of its 11 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.

"There's not been a whole lot of people who've had success," Brown said of running on Louisville. "National champions had some success in the second half."

He noted that the Cats are going to need maximum efforts from the offensive line, the tight ends and fullbacks as well as UK's running backs.

"Run downhill, run angry like they did against Georgia," Brown said. "I thought they did a nice job against Georgia."

On the other side of the ball, the running game is Louisville's specialty with three healthy running backs of differing sizes, speeds and styles. All could cause damage to UK, especially with Bobby Petrino calling the shots and a mobile quarterback in freshman Reggie Bonnafon, who ran for two scores at Notre Dame last week.

In three of Kentucky's last five losses, the Cats have surrendered 300 or more yards on the ground. In the last five games, opponents are averaging 5.5 yards per carry against UK.

"I don't think it's any secret that Coach Petrino does a nice job of setting up his run game and scheming the run game," Stoops said. "They scheme their run game really well. They have some really good boots and play-actions off of everything, and they keep you off balance."

The trick on picks

Louisville's Gerod Holliman has as many interceptions this season (13) as all of Kentucky's defense, but that's not necessarily a knock on the Cats.

Only 21 teams have more than Holliman this season as the sophomore safety nears a big milestone, just one pick away from tying the national record for interceptions in a season set 46 years ago by Al Worley at Washington.

"Hopefully he can get it in the bowl game and not against us," UK's Brown said.

Kentucky players noted the importance of winning some one-on-ones against Holliman and always knowing where he is.

"We're all going to just come together and try to get the win," senior wide-out Javess Blue said. "We just got to be those defenders. It's either we catch it or no one catches it."

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