Wildcats facing huge, but not insurmountable, task on Saturday

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It was about a year and a week ago that the football Wildcats trundled into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and played the Louisville Cardinals even up for a quarter and change. It seems like a long time ago.

The Cards opened the scoring with a touchdown (and two-point conversion, which caught the Cats snoozing) that capped off a 99-yard drive, a preview of the problems UK would have with defense all season long.

The Wildcats answered with a scoring drive of their own early in the second quarter, and it was 8-7. From then on, Kentucky couldn’t score enough to put pressure on the Cardinals. U of L won 32-14, snapping a string of five straight season-opening wins for Kentucky.

Both teams went in decidedly different directions after that.

Louisville finished the season by embarrassing Florida in the Sugar Bowl. UK finished with a record that was equally embarrassing and fired head coach Joker Phillips.

Now the task of finding a way to beat the Cardinals has fallen to Mark Stoops. If you’re going to whip up a game plan for stopping a team that’s averaging 47 points per game, you’re going to need the brainpower of a guy who helped design one of the nation’s top defenses last season.

Trouble is, he Stoops did it at Florida State, where the talent level was decidedly different than what he’s working with in Lexington right now. But is it an impossible task? Of course not.

It’s easy to say, but the Wildcats have to find ways to take advantage of weakness the Cards have not yet shown this season. So we’ll go back to last year, which saw U of L finish in grand style down in New Orleans, but stumble along the way with some losses and close calls that in the wake of their pounding of the Gators, seemed so surprising.

Last year Louisville slipped past weaker opponents such as North Carolina, Southern Mississippi and Florida International. The Cardinals eked out wins over South Florida and Cincinnati before losing at Syracuse and then, after an extra week of practice that came with an open date, losing to Connecticut, 23-20 in overtime at home.

In the regular season finale, they slid past Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J., by a field goal. But they made good use of the nearly six-week interlude to prepare for the Gators, who played as though they thought all they had to do was throw their helmets on the field to collect their win. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Still, the Cards looked like mere mortals most of the season, not like the 7th-best team in the country, which is where they’re ranked right now. So I did an informal survey of friends and colleagues who follow Louisville, asking why they think their team is so much better now.

One of my buddies said the Cards’ run defense was weak last year. Another faulted the defensive backs (too young, too soft). Neither liked U of L’s run game. They’re liking it more now, thanks to Michael Dyer.

My friends who cover the team had similar sentiments about the run game, and also reminded that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was injured during the U-Conn game.

They all mentioned the fact that the 2012 Louisville team was young. One of the journalists said U of L didn’t really expect a huge year last season; that they figured 2013 would be their chance to make headlines. And they should, given the schedule the Cards are playing this season.

Kentuckyis next up, and if the Wildcats are going to have any chance, they’ll have to get nearly flawless execution on both sides of the football. The Cats surprised the Cards with the quicker pace last season; they just couldn’t get any stops when they needed them. That has to change.

Hal Mumme unleashed his version of the Air Raid attack against the Cardinals and blew their doors off. Of course, he had Tim Couch, Craig Yeast and a lot of other talented players on offense who were good enough to make up for a sub-standard defense. Kentucky has to be sharp at both to have any chance at winning.

The Cats must apply constant pressure by moving the ball and scoring when they get the opportunity; on defense they have to put pressure on Bridgewater and keep him from finding the comfort level that’s seen him throw nine TD passes so far this season, and just one interception. And it would be helpful if they could shut down the U of L run game the way Eastern Kentucky did, although the Colonels basically sold out to stop the run – and gave up 397 passing yards in a 44-7 rout.

Kentucky also has to straighten out mistakes in specials teams play. It was the only glaring area in the easy win over Miami (O.). UK return men made several mistakes in judgment, trying to field kicks inside the 10-yard line.

Not only do the Wildcats have to be flawless on special teams, it would be helpful if they could pull off a big play or two – say, block a kick, run one back for a touchdown. And while they’re at it, prevent the other guys from doing the same.

Turnovers, as always, will be the key. But the Cats need a big advantage in that department, if for no other reason, to keep Bridgewater on the sideline. And if they do get extra possessions, they have to score. They’ll need stolen points to win this game.

Louisville has the Heisman candidate at quarterback, and the veteran team. Kentucky has two quarterbacks, and some talented youngsters. An upset is unlikely but certainly possible. And it would remind fans on both sides that for much of last year, as bad as the Wildcats were, the Cardinals didn’t become a “super team” until the Sugar Bowl.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

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