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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky began this month one game from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010 and now the Wildcats' are trying to avoid a fourth consecutive losing season.
That's what a five-game slide can do to a football program.
There's not lack of motivation for the Wildcats (5-6), coming off a bye entering Saturday's rivalry game at No. 24 Louisville (8-3). Not only will Kentucky try to salvage a .500 finish and enter the bowl picture, there's the matter of winning the Governor's Cup — also for the first time since 2010.
"We've got a lot to play for," Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said in Monday's news conference. "Guys are excited and energized. It's been a good, tough stretch against some quality teams."
The rested Wildcats face a huge obstacle against the surging Cardinals, who beat Notre Dame 31-28 on Saturday for their second straight win.
Formerly played early in the year, this showdown for Bluegrass State bragging rights now wraps up the regular season.
Kentucky doesn't want its season to end Saturday.
"We're playing our rival on the road for an opportunity to go to a bowl game. So it is what is." Stoops said. "We'll prepare and be excited to go play, but there's no reason to play tight and I don't anticipate that. I'd like to see us play with that great passion that we did for most of the season."
The Wildcats definitely need to begin with more intensity after digging early holes during its skid.
Kentucky has yielded at least 40 points and 423 yards in four of its five losses, including 113 points and 1,070 yards combined against Georgia and Tennessee. The offense has struggled as well, no surprise considering the Wildcats faced several Southeastern Conference contenders.
The docket left them tired and hurting and made last week's bye timely for healing, recharging and getting back to fundamentals.
"You get so enamored with the X's and O's and assignments that you drift from some of the basics," Stoops said. "We obviously try not to. We constantly have individual (practice periods) in certain things, but it was good to spend more time with that last week."
Kentucky will need everything against Louisville, which is playing well since blowing a three-touchdown lead and the game against Florida State.
The Cardinals enter on a high after topping the Fighting Irish behind a multi-pronged rushing attack and mobile freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon, who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another for his third win in four starts this season.
"I'm very proud of our football team," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said Monday, "but it's time to put it behind us and focus on Kentucky."
Louisville enters with the ninth-ranked defense (290.2 yards per game) and a nation-leading 23 interceptions — 13 by safety Gerod Holliman. Already a tall task for Kentucky's offense, it will be even tougher without freshman wide receiver Dorian Baker, whom Stoops said sustained a season-ending knee injury last week in practice.
Stoops said the Wildcats nonetheless enter hopeful of ending their overall losing streak and recent slump against the Cardinals, who trail the series 12-14. All things considered, the rivalry is just a side note in the Wildcats' postseason quest.
"I think a win this weekend would do an awful lot for these players," Stoops said. "I think they deserve it. They put in the work. They've put in the time, they care and they deserve to win and have that taste of success and that taste of a bowl game.
"I'd like to see that for them."