LEXINGTON – There are dozens of angles you can look at as keys to today’s Kentucky-Louisville football game (3:30 p.m. on ESPN).
It’s like trying to assess a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
But in my mind, any hope UK’s Wildcats have of an upset and any chance Louisville’s Cardinals have of blowing this one comes down to one factor: Can Kentucky’s highly touted defensive line get to the Cards’ outstanding sophomore quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater?
“It’s hard,” says UK senior defensive end Collins Ukwu, when asked about slowing down the 6-3, 210-pound Bridgewater. “He’s probably a 4.4, 4.5 guy. He’s quick, and he’s fast. You have to game plan around that. That’s really the main thing, is containing him.”
“Coming out of high school, people were wondering if he could throw the ball well enough to be a big-time quarterback,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said of Bridgewater, a Miami, Fla., native. “Well, he can. He threw for some 2,100 yards last year and didn’t really play until our game, which was the third game last year.
“He is also a guy who can pull the ball down and make plays with his feet. He’s a really good quarterback, one of the top quarterbacks, not only in their league, but in the country.”
Phillips said Bridgewater is smart, too, which doesn’t help Kentucky’s cause.
“You don’t ever see people get pressure on him because of him not understanding protections or (failing to) changing protections,” Phillips said.
The 6-5, 258-pound Ukwu is part of a Kentucky line that’s clearly the strength of the Wildcats’ overall defense.
Ukwu joins 6-3, 315-pound junior Donte Rumph, 6-foot, 331-pound Mister Cobble and 6-4, 247-pound sophomore Alvin Dupree on the defensive front four, though Dupree sometimes lines up at linebacker.
“It’s important that those guys up front set the tone,” Phillips said. “They have to be able to stop the run first, and then just get pressure by getting in some basic rush lanes.
“We have to be really good in understanding our pressure packages so we can take some pressure off the back end.”
I don’t believe the Wildcats will be able to pressure Bridgewater enough to keep the blue and white in this game, though it may be of some comfort to Kentucky that North Carolina State did a good job pressuring Bridgewater last winter in the Belk Bowl.
The best hope might be that Kentucky’s oh-so-young linebackers can provide support, most notably 6-1, 254-pound junior Avery Williamson.
If this plan does not pan out for the Wildcats, then the only hope for UK is that Phillips’ hype about the improvement of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith and a stable of potential playmakers lives up to the billing dished out by their head coach.
It seemed like Phillips was excited about his playmakers at this time last year as well, and the 2011 UK offense turned back the clock to something akin to the Bill Curry years. Yikes.
“Max is not going to be a guy that is going to beat you with his legs,” Phillips said. “We all know that. But he’s a guy who can beat you with his arm and beat you with his mind. He can see a blitz, change the protection to pick up the blitz, and then hurt you.”
I’d be much more comfortable if Smith COULD hurt you with his feet, because U of L head coach Charlie Strong is a great defensive coach. Strong’s teams are known to bring nearly constant pressure from the defensive side.
Phillips said it helps that his own defensive coordinator, Rick Minter, shares many of the same philosophies as Strong.
“What will help Max is what he has seen in practice,” Phillips said. “Rick is cut from the same cloth. You know, he likes to bring pressure from all angles, all different directions, all different down and distance ... similar to what we will see on Sunday.”
Yes, we will see.
But I believe Louisville will win by something around 37-17. And that will probably happen whether there is five inches of rain falling during the game or none at all.
Because I suspect the Cardinals are balanced enough in their offense, in the air and on the ground, to adjust and be effective.