LOUISVILLE – We all knew prior to Sunday’s Louisville-Kentucky football game that this affair – and probably much of this season – would be a struggle for the Wildcats on defense.
All you had to do was look at the guys the Wildcats lost on that side of the ball from last season – most notably linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy – and look at who was returning on the back seven.
The answer to the latter area, referring to the linebackers and secondary guys, is pretty much no one.
We had been told by the UK coaches this offseason that the team was solid on the defensive line, led by junior defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble and senior defensive end Collins Ukwu.
But what was so stunning about Sunday’s 32-14 loss to the Cardinals wasn’t so much the outcome, or even the margin, but the way Louisville manhandled the Kentucky defenders, including the Wildcats’ D-line.
Sophomore Teddy Bridgewater (19 of 21 passing), junior running backs Jeremy Wright (105 yards, three touchdowns) and Senorise Perry (119 yards) and wide receivers Damian Copeland (four catches), Andrell Smith (four catches), DeVante Parker (three catches) and Nate Nord (three catches) played like this was the Cards’ spring game and they were going against their third-string defense.
Louisville had four drives that went for 76 yards or more.
“One of our goals was to win up front,” UK coach Joker Phillips said. “We didn’t win up front.”
Kentucky’s defense wasn’t merely bad on Sunday...no, it was several adjectives below that. This was as poor a defensive performance as I’ve seen from a UK team since the Bill Curry days.
This game made the Hal Mumme defenses look like the Monsters of the Midway.
This was oh-my-gosh awful.
I felt it was a no-brainer going in that Kentucky had to get great play from the its line and throw in a lot of stunts and blitzes from the linebackers and corners to try to throw Bridgewater off rhythm.
It did not even cross my mind that defensive coordinator Rick Minter would not have his defenders do any of these things.
So what happened is that the Louisville offensive linemen manhandled Kentucky’s defensive front, leaving gaping holes for the backs, while Bridgewater dropped back and completed passes like a sharpshooter dropping ducks from point blank range.
“Bridgewater did whatever he wanted,” Minter said. “He kept us confused...disjointed. The first half was horrific, and the second half was only a little bit better.
“There were too many big, gaping, gashing holes on defense.”
Hot seat hotter
Yes, there were. And because of that, the odds of Phillips keeping his job beyond this season took another step backward.
That’s a shame on several levels, but mostly because it appears from Sunday that the Kentucky offense, stagnant for the past year-plus, is dramatically better than 12 months ago.
But right now the only merit I can see to the latter is that the UK defeats this fall promise to be more entertaining, more like 52-27, instead of the 35-6 kind of losses of a season ago.
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith was marvelous against Louisville, completing 35 of 50 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. I loved Smith’s showing.
Wide receiver La’Rod King caught most every pass thrown his way (eight catches in all), and redshirt freshman wide-out Daryl Collins was a revelation, catching seven passes.
Running backs CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders ran hard and well at times, but contributed to UK’s loss in a big way with critical fumbles.
And Kentucky’s thin offensive line played more than well enough to win this game.
But the Wildcats’ offense was not on the field enough to do all it could do.
And make no mistake about it, the 32 points surrendered by the UK defense is deceptive.
Named the score
The Cardinals literally could have named the score, and they would have had Coach Charlie Strong not replaced Bridgewater with Will Stein with 2:43 left in the third quarter and the score 32-14.
Strong said it was because Stein, a senior, “deserved to play.” Phillips, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, speculated that Bridgewater may have been “cramping up from running up and down the field.”
From a strategic standpoint, Strong’s QB switch was, at best, reckless, and at worst, not too bright, given how easily the Kentucky offense was moving the ball.
But I’m not going to indict Strong on this, as if he cares, because here’s the deal - and he can deny this until he’s blue in the face - but Strong did it out of respect for Joker Phillips.
I make that assumption because Charlie Strong is not reckless or stupid. He’s a tremendous football coach, and I also now feel even more assured than before that he’s a exceptional person.
Strong knew that, say, 56-14, would leave Phillips’ future dead at UK, while 32-14 at least leaves Phillips’ coaching future at Kentucky on life support.
Bobby Petrino would have taken this same Louisville team and beat Kentucky, 70-14, though Petrino promises that he’s now new and improved.
Where from here?
So, where does this Kentucky team go from here?
Phew, boy, I just don’t know. You’d figure the defense HAS to get better, and the Wildcats figure to cruise Saturday at home against Kent State (7:30 kickoff) and Western Kentucky (7 p.m.) on Sept. 15.
But those games may only be the relative calm before the storm, with SEC starting on Sept. 22 at Florida. What do you figure teams like Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas will do to this UK defense?
I believe the Wildcats won’t face a better quarterback than Bridgewater down the road.
Still, scary times lie ahead.
My singular advice to the UK coaches is this: If you win the toss, take the ball.
Fields makes a mark
Frankfort’s E.J. Fields started at wide receiver for Kentucky Sunday, and while Fields did not see many passes thrown his way, he made quite an impression on Philips in another way.
Asked if he was happy with the play of Smith at quarterback and his wide receivers, Phillips responded: “I am. But what we’ve got to be better on is our blocking on the perimeter. You know I’m not a guy who likes cute receivers on the perimeter. I like guys who are going to be physical, and I don’t think we’re getting that now.
“A couple of times we did, and a lot of that’s coming from the older guys. E.J. Fields made some really good blocks.”