LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Heading into the latest iteration of the Battle for the Governor's Cup, Louisville had generated a fair amount of momentum and buzz.
The Cardinals were coming off back-to-back blowout victories over Syracuse and Duke, and it seemed like they were turning a corner from their midseason struggles. While big wins came against less than stellar teams, there was optimism on both sides of the ball.
The bitter taste of Louisville's last matchup against Kentucky, a decisive Wildcats win in Lexington two seasons ago, seemed to still be fresh for the players and coaches. All week long, they gave off the vibe that they were eager to try and flip the script of the recent series history, and turn tides back in Louisville's favor.
In fact, Louisville had closed as a three-point favorite. Instead, what came to play out on Saturday night at Cardinal Stadium was nothing short of a total systems failure.
From almost the start, it was Kentucky who established control of the game, and it was Louisville that seemed to not even belong on the same field as them. By the time the clock hit double zeroes, the Cardinals had been dealt an embarrassing 52-21 loss - their third-straight 30-point loss to the Wildcats - and it wasn't even that close.
"They did a great job tonight," Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield said of Kentucky. "They came out and right from the start, they got the ball first, drove down the field and in about five or six plays, scored a touchdown and that was pretty much what was going to be happening the rest of the game."
Despite that first score by the 'Cats, a 29-yard rush by quarterback Will Levis, it seemed like Louisville might be able to keep pace in a potential shootout. The Cardinals orchestrated a 10-play/75-yard drive, culminating in a one-yard rushing touchdown from quarterback Malik Cunningham.
But that was pretty much it from the Louisville side of things. The defense allowed yet another Levis rushing touchdown on their next time out, the offense would then stall out at midfield to result in a turnover on downs, and that was pretty much all she wrote for the Cards.
After putting up 111 yards on their first two drives, Louisville would only amass 76 on their next five times out. Meanwhile, the defense continued to fall apart, letting Kentucky score on seven of their first eight drives of the game - with the lone exception being a drive that started just 41 seconds before halftime.
"If you’re not doing something well on one side of the ball, you hope the other side picks you up, and that didn’t happen tonight," Satterfield said. "Minus the first drive, it was a little bit of snowballing with both sides not doing what they needed to do."
Though Satterfield was adamant that a physical mismatch did not play a role in the outcome, it was clear to everyone watching the game that this was simply not true. From a physicality standpoint, it looked like a golf cart going toe-to-toe with a Ferrari.
Offensively, Louisville had absolutely no answer to Kentucky's front seven. The Wildcats limited the production from the running backs, as Louisville ran for only 144 yards, and Cunningham had his worst offensive output on the year - just 180 total yards - and looked rattled at times.
It wasn't much better defensively. Time after time, Kentucky got whatever they wanted when running up the middle - whether it be from Levis or running back Chris Rodriguez. When they weren't running it down Louisville's throat, the secondary had no answer for wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, who set the UK single-season receptions record in the game.
Outside of just seemingly getting punked all night long, it even looked like Kentucky was the one who just wanted it more.
"I do think they blocked as well tonight, but I don't think it was a physical mismatch. I think we did not fit well," Satterfield said.
But that only tells half the story. While the players seemed rattled and out-matched from a physical standpoint, coaching also played a very heavy role in the outcome - particularly on defense. Louisville was much too big of cushions to wide receivers, allowing them to gains 10+ yards with ease on simple hitches, comebacks and slants.
There was one quote by Satterfield that was particularly damning. Heading into the game, it was well known that Levis was just as big of a threat with his legs as he was with his arm. Prior to the Louisville game, he had 274 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. In his two years at Penn State, he had 473 and six.
But according to Satterfield, Louisville seemingly had zero idea this could be something to watch for.
"The difference in the game was their quarterback’s legs, which he hasn’t done much of that this season." he said.
Well, they know now. Levis took advantage of a wide open middle of the field on numerous occasions, not only extending drives because of it, but finding the end zone. By the time his day was done, he had ran for 149 yards and four touchdowns.
As previously stated, Saturday night was nothing short of a complete and total failure. From an effort standpoint, from a want-it standpoint, from a coaching standpoint. Energy was high early, but it means nothing if you can't execute and take advantage of it.
At least in 2019, Louisville had the built in excuse that it was Satterfield's first year at the helm, inheriting a mismanaged roster from the Petrino era. Louisville even had 10 days to prepare for this year's matchup, and still fell flat on their face.
Louisville's season might not be done yet, as they now just wait and see which bowl they draw, but good luck getting fans excited for it. Even if the Cardinals do deliver a beatdown on whoever they are matched up against, it's clear that there needs to be changes of some sort in the offseason, or they will continue to be the nail to Kentucky's hammer.
(Photo of Louisville Players: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)
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