Lexington, KY – In what might be one of the toughest games on the schedule for seventh-ranked Louisville, the Cardinals will face off with the Kentucky Wildcats in a Bluegrass State showdown at Commonwealth Stadium.
Thus far Louisville has lived up to the immense expectations laid upon it after its upset win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl last year. The Cardinals have dominated in their first two games, posting commanding victories over Ohio (40-7) and FCS foe Eastern Kentucky (44-7). Since 2002 the Cardinals are 44-18 in non-conference games. However, Louisville has been fortunate enough to play at home in the first two weeks of the season. The battle with Kentucky will give an early indication of whether or not the Cardinals can keep pace on the road.
As for Kentucky, a team considered in the bottom tier of the vaunted SEC, the 2013 campaign has been a mixed bag in the first two games. Kentucky lost in a neutral site matchup against instate foe Western Kentucky, a team now coached by former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. The Wildcats followed up that effort with a 41-7 rout of Miami-Ohio at home.
Though the rivalry in basketball is where these teams are at their most heated, there is a storied history on the gridiron as well. Kentucky leads the all-time series by a 14-11 margin. Last season, Louisville made quick work of the Wildcats at home, posting a 32-14 victory to open the campaign.
At the center of Louisville's impressive start to the season has been quarterback and Heisman hopeful Teddy Bridgewater. The junior has looked almost flawless under center for the Cardinals through the first two games. Bridgewater has completed an incredible 76.7 percent of his pass attempts (46- of-60) and totaled 752 yards and nine touchdowns to just one interception. His 228.1 efficiency rating is second among quarterbacks that have played in two games this season. Bridgewater has also thrown a touchdown in 14 straight games.
DeVante Parker looked more like the deep-threat playmaker he was a year ago against Eastern Kentucky as he caught a pair of touchdown passes and totaled 134 yards. Parker now has nine receptions for 207 yards and three scores while Damian Copeland (nine receptions, 130 yards, three TDs) has been reliable in more of a possession receiver role. Eli Rogers (six receptions, 131 yards) and Kai De La Cruz (five receptions, 128 yards, two TDs) will also get looks from Bridgewater.
The running game has been more subdued with Bridgewater taking on the burden of carrying the offense. Senorise Perry (94 yards, TD) and Michael Dyer (70 yards, TD) have paired nicely, with Dyer showing more explosiveness at 6.4 yards per carry.
Bridgewater will continue to get the headlines for Charlie Strong's club but his head coach has to be happy with how well his defense has played. The Cardinals have allowed just two offensive scores, held foes to 239.5 yards per game. Meanwhile the Cardinals have converted on all seven of their own red zone chances they have only let up two scores in four chances by opponents.
Always a task master, Strong still feels that his defense is improving and will be better as the season moves on.
"We have been aggressive and have blitzed a lot but we can play better," Strong said. "We would like to see better play. It will come. You just figure each game you get better and better and better."
Preston Brown has been a force at linebacker with a team-high 17 tackles, as well as a pair of sacks. Calvin Pryor has 12 tackles and has made a few plays on the ball already with an interception and a fumble recovery.
Kentucky will certainly present some different challenges for Strong's defense. The Wildcats run a spread offense and utilize two different quarterbacks in Mark Stoops' scheme. Thus far the gameplan has yielded some impressive results, including the 675 yards the team posted against Miami- Ohio. That tied for the third-highest single game output in team history.
The two quarterbacks the Wildcats use are Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow. Smith fills the role of the drop-back passer that is relied more often in passing plays. Smith has thrown for 435 yards and four touchdowns on 23-of-36 passing. Whitlow is the more dynamic playmaker as he has shown an ability to complete passes efficiently (20-of-27, 181 yards), while adding a rushing component (123 yards, two TDs). Expect both quarterbacks to get plenty of playing time on Saturday.
There is talent on the edge for either signal caller to work with. Javess Blue has pulled in nine passes for 139 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown strike. Anthony Kendrick has five receptions for 102 yards and has been reliable in his ability to get catches in the second level of the secondary.
Whitlow isn't the only player on the team that runs the ball for Kentucky as Raymond Sanders (137 yards, TD) has produced well with limited work (20 carries).
On defense Kentucky would very much like to continue to build on the dominating performance it had against Miami-Ohio. The Wildcats gave up just 122 yards to the RedHawks, including a paltry 23 through the air. Against a quarterback like Bridgewater with the Cardinals' multiple offensive weapons, keeping up that kind of success will be impossible.
"They're very good all around (Bridgewater), and they have a strong line. They have great backs. They have good wide receivers. I mean, great wide receivers," Stoops said, while adding this week was a 'big test'. "They're very talented across the board."
Za'Darius Smith (4.0 sacks) has been a force in pressuring quarterbacks and will need to be on his game to keep Bridgewater off balance. With 11 stops, Smith is one of seven Kentucky defenders with at least 10 tackles. That attacking mentality will be key against the Cardinals.