Kentucky’s season started so brilliantly. Key injuries on defense robbed this team of its potential, a brutal break for coach Mark Stoops, who continues to do well in Lexington.
By Matt Zemek
Remember when Stoops was on the hot seat once upon a time? He turned the ship around and hasn’t looked back.
Though Kentucky was not able to secure a coveted New Year’s Six bowl bid, which seemed possible even after the Georgia loss, the Wildcats can still view their regular season as a journey of growth and progress if they can win their rivalry game this weekend. The Cats prepare to face Louisville to end the 2021 regular season.
The Wildcats’ evolution as a program would be powerfully affirmed by going 9-3 and yet feeling they left something on the table this year. A win against Louisville would give Mark Stoops a chance for a 10-win season if he can also win a bowl game. Kentucky has won 10 games in a season only three times — 2018 (10-3), 1977 (10-1), and 1950 (11-1). This would mean Stoops would be responsible for half of UK’s 10-win seasons in Lexington. That’s pretty good for a coach nobody talks about.
1 – Will Levis must carry his rhythm into this game
We’ve been focusing on Levis all season. While he is clearly a very proficient quarterback, he has struggled at times with interceptions. Levis played well against New Mexico State and must find a way to carry that form into the Louisville contest. Yes, it’s only New Mexico State, but when a quarterback sees the field well, that can get him back into the right frame of mind. Levis was 21-of-31 for 419 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception against the Aggies. Levis has played only two games this year in which he did not throw an interception. Improbably, those games were against Georgia and LSU. How he managed to stay perfect in those contests while throwing interceptions against Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State is quite a plot twist. Hopefully, he can limit mistakes against the Cardinals.
2 – Kentucky rush defense vs. Malik Cunningham
The Wildcats have the nation’s 18th-best rushing defense, but the Cardinals have Malik Cunningham. Just how good is he? The Louisville signal-caller has thrown for 2,589 yards with 62.2 percent completions. He has also thrown for 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Instructively, Cunningham has also rushed for 933 yards on 150 carries and has added another 18 touchdowns on the ground. That’s 36 overall touchdowns compared to only five interceptions. He has accumulated 3,522 total yards of offense. The dual-threat capability of Cunningham is the central engine of the Louisville offense. If Kentucky can contain Cunningham, the Cats can feast on the Cardinals.
3 – White-knuckle moments
Kentucky is on the cusp of a potential 10-win season, including a bowl victory, but UL is favored by a field goal. The Cardinals would love nothing more than to crush the Wildcats’ dreams. The Cardinals are trying to make big strides under head coach Scott Satterfield. If he loses here, he will feel a lot of heat heading into the offseason. Kentucky is going to get Satterfield’s best play designs and wrinkles. The defense needs to be ready to not get caught out of position, thereby preventing Louisville from springing big plays in the most important moments of this game. Discipline needs to be Kentucky’s ally against a talented by an erratic adversary.