LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville defensive end Earl Heyman can
still see Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson's pass hanging in the
air, floating softly into the hands of wide receiver Steve Johnson
for the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of last year's
It was a moment that ended up defining the season for both
teams. Kentucky's victory helped briefly propel the Wildcats into
the Top 10, and they finished the season with a second straight
Music City Bowl win.
The loss took some of the swagger out of the Cardinals, sending
them on a downward spiral that ended with their first bowl-less
season in nearly a decade and led to an offseason of change.
The Cardinals have new coordinators on both offense and defense,
a new quarterback and a new attitude heading into Sunday's renewal
of one of the country's most heated rivalries: stop worrying about
"Everyone talks about last year and some people still talk
about the Orange Bowl year, but that is irrelevant," Heyman said.
"What matters is here and now."
Heyman's words echo the Kentucky football billboards scattered
all over the state, many of them with pictures of head coach Rich
Brooks and the phrase "experience matters" splashed across the
Experience, however, is the one thing both schools lack. The
players whose high-wattage star power lifted both programs onto the
national scene have moved on. In their place are a slew of fresh
faces who will be taking center stage for the first time.
"For a lot of guys this will be their first real experience,"
Brooks said. "It's on the road. It'll be noisy, a different
atmosphere than they've ever experienced. How those guys respond is
key to the outcome of the game."
The spotlight will shine brightest on Kentucky's Mike Hartline.
The sophomore was the de facto winner of a quarterback duel with
Curtis Pulley when Pulley was dismissed earlier this month for
violating team rules. Brooks has praised Hartline's progress during
training camp, but hasn't ruled out throwing freshman Randall Cobb
into the mix if Hartline falters.
Louisville is a bit more settled at quarterback, where Hunter
Cantwell takes over after spending most of the last three years as
Brian Brohm's understudy. The typically reserved Cantwell has tried
to take on a leadership role, he really doesn't have a choice. The
Cardinals have so many new faces in the huddle you couldn't blame
him Cantwell if he asked his teammates to wear stickers with "Hi,
my name is" printed on them.
Despite the inexperience surrounding him, Cantwell knows he
doesn't have to remind his teammates what's at stake. The countdown
clock to the Kentucky game has been running in the weight room at
the Howard Schnellenberger Football complex for months.
"This is the state championship," he said. "Every year that I
have played here, whether UK was supposed to be down or we were
supposed to be down, I always saw both teams come in and play above
and beyond what most people expected."
With so many questions at so many positions, not much is
expected of either team this season. Both coaches are hesitant to
place too much emphasis on the first game of the year, but
victories could be at a premium for two schools picked to finish in
the bottom half of their respective leagues.
"Win or lose the game doesn't make the end all for season or
tell all for the season but I sure would like chances of having a
good year after the win," Brooks said.
Brooks would know. Consider how close the margin for error was
last year. If the Cardinals find a way to stop Woodson's
last-second heroics, maybe they're the ones that end up with the
bowl bid. If the Wildcats lose, maybe they don't go on to beat
top-ranked LSU and build the kind of forward momentum rarely seen
A Kentucky win on Sunday would be the program's first at
Louisville in six years and keep the balance of power in the state
firmly in the Wildcats' grasp. A Louisville victory would do more
than put last year's meltdown firmly in the rearview mirror, it
would give a second-year coach Steve Kragthorpe's team the kind of
confidence boost that could pay off down the road.
"It's a chance to get things moving in the right direction and
hopefully that positive momentum continues to go throughout the
course of the season," Kragthorpe said. "You add the fact that
it's UK, that makes it more special. It's a special game not only
in the state, but in the country. Everybody is going to be watching
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)