It’s the same Governor’s Cup, only this year with a different twist.
Kentucky football meets Louisville at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville. For Kentucky, it’s the regular-season finale. For Louisville, it’s the final game of the season. That tells you a large part of the plot right there.
Kentucky’s record 8-3. The Wildcats are 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings; 17th in the AP Top 25. Their 5-3 SEC mark was the school’s first winning conference season since 1977. Sometime after Saturday, Mark Stoops’ team is headed to a bowl game. A prestigious bowl game, possibly.
Louisville is 2-9. Two weeks back, the school fired head coach Bobby Petrino, 34-18 in his second stint as the Cardinals’ coach before the wheels fell off this season. Lorenzo “Whammy” Ward is the team’s interim coach. Sometime after Saturday, Louisville is headed to a press conference to name a new head football coach. Jeff Brohm, possibly.
It’s a reversal of fortune for both programs. So often in recent years, Kentucky entered the game against its in-state rival — whether the season opener, or, since 2014, the final game of the regular season — digging from a hole. Louisville was the program riding high. The tables have turned.
Louisville has won 15 of the 24 games since the series received a reboot and new “Governor’s Cup” name in 1994. The Cards have won six of the last seven, including 44-17 last season in Lexington. The Cats were victorious their last trip to U of L, however, snapping a five-game losing streak to the Cards via a dramatic 47-yard field goal by Austin MacGinnis with 12 seconds left for a 41-38 win.
It’s difficult to fathom how U of L has fallen so far so fast. Two years back, the Cardinals stood on the cusp of making the four-team College Football Playoff. Their spectacular quarterback, Lamar Jackson, would win the Heisman Trophy. Now, they’ve lost eight straight games. Six were by 20 points or more.
Louisville’s offense has been unusually bad, especially for a Petrino team. Its defense has been worse. Out of 130 FBS schools, U of L ranks 128th in scoring defense. It has allowed an average of 43 points per game. And it has only grown worse. Its last four games, Louisville has allowed 239 points — 56, 77, 54, 52. That’s ugly.
That seems the sure sign of a team that has tossed in the towel. At this point, aren’t the Cardinals more than ready to get the whole thing over with?
Kentucky isn’t buying that angle. Too easy. An upset victory over its archrival would be a sweet ending to Louisville’s bitterly sour campaign.
“We know they’re going to play hard,” said UK linebacker Kash Daniel. “Their record doesn’t speak to how athletic and how talented they really are.”
UK saw a display of that talent last season and did not react well. Multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Late hits for untimely personal fouls. A near-brawl erupted at one point with one UK player picking up a plastic trash can and hurling it at a Cardinal. It wasn’t pretty.
“We know what they did to us last year,” star outside linebacker Josh Allen said this week. “We’ve all got a bad taste in our mouth from that game.”
The Cats insist they are an older, wiser team now. More mature. “We put it behind us but we also never forget,” Daniel said. “It’s always in the back of our mind.”
Two more things the Cats remember, starting with the 24-7 loss two weeks ago at Tennessee. Favored by a touchdown, UK had a golden opportunity to end a Rocky Top losing streak dating to 1984. Instead, the flat Cats laid a large egg. “An embarrassment,” Daniel said.
Saturday, UK has a golden opportunity to win nine games in a regular season for the first time since 1977.
What would nine regular-season wins mean?
“It would be really cool,” Daniel said. “Really cool.”
No. 15 Kentucky at Louisville
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 8-3 (5-3 SEC), Louisville 2-9 (0-8 ACC)
Series: Tied 15-15 (Louisville leads modern-day series 15-9)
Last meeting: Louisville won 44-17 on Nov. 25, 2017, in Lexington.