By Derek DeBurger

The Governor’s Cup will be up for grabs on Saturday as the No. 10 Cardinals will face rival Kentucky Wildcats.

More competitive than ever

Kentucky has owned the series in recent history—winning five of the last six matchups—but with the Cards reaching 10 wins for just the seventh season in program history, there’s reason to believe this year will be more competitive.

The Wildcats have had a depressing season thus far, failing to meet almost any of the credible preseason hype. The most successful offensive coordinator under head coach Mark Stoops was back, the Cats got massive transfers with one of the top quarterbacks in the portal and the top running back in the SEC, the O-line was almost entirely rebuilt, the talented trio of receivers was coming back and Stoops always fields stout defenses — yet very little of the hype actually materialized.

An underperforming offense

Starting with the offense, Liam Coen’s triumphant return has been anything but. The signal-caller has been at the helm of one of the slowest offenses in the country and has been a major part of why the Cats are ranked 66th in points per game, 93rd in passing yards per game, and 92nd in rushing yards per game. Since starting the year 5-0, Kentucky is just 1-5 in their last six games, failing to score more than 27 points in any of those games.

Depending on where you look, quarterback Devin Leary was considered the first or second-best quarterback in the transfer portal available this offseason. Leary threw only nine interceptions in his last two seasons at NC State combined — this season he’s already thrown nine interceptions with two games left on Kentucky’s schedule. While he’s coming off of a previous pectoral injury and has been significantly improving in the latter half of the season, there are still misses to wide-open receivers and poor decision-making.

The aforementioned best running back in the SEC is Ray Davis, and he has been exactly as advertised. He is amazing and has been the bell cow for the Wildcats this year, receiving 152 more carries than the next closest player on the roster. The only issue is that Kentucky, normally a ground-and-pound type of offense under Stoops, has been very pass-happy this year so Davis has not gotten the touches he deserves. Against Florida, Davis had 26 carries for 280 yards, and in the last two games for Kentucky Davis has only 24 touches. If the Wildcats want to win that has to change.

The receiving corps of Barion Brown, Dane Key, and Tayvion Robinson remains extremely dangerous and capable of taking the top off of a secondary at any time. They’ve put up limited numbers on the year, but that says more about Leary’s struggles combined with a handful of timely drops. The offensive line has improved over last year, which was the biggest weakness of the team, but it still isn’t what Kentucky fans have become accustomed to.

A two-faced defense

Defensively this team is pretty two-faced. The run defense is very good, giving up a mere 109.6 yards per game. Everything on that front starts with their NFL-caliber nose tackle Deone Walker. Walker is six feet six inches and 348 pounds, and he somehow moves with the speed of a linebacker. Louisville’s O-line has been impressive to this point, but they’ll have their hands full trying to stop Walker.

The pass defense has been giving up 238.3 pass yards per game. The Cats’ top corner, Maxwell Hairston, is very talented — he’s hauled in five interceptions which is good enough for the second most in the country, two of those taken to the house. Once you get past Hairston though, it gets pretty ugly. The second corner on the depth chart is Andru Phillips, and he has not been up to par. Phillips is allowing 71% of passes thrown his way to be caught, and Pro Football Focus only credits two incompletions to him.

As a U of L alum, head coach Jeff Brohm calls this “the most important game of the rest of the season.”

“We can talk about it all we want, this is the most important game, and our guys need to understand that preparing and trying to win this game needs to be the complete focus,” he said in his most recent press conference.

Recent history does not favor the Cards in this matchup, but I think Brohm has these guys walking the walk. I’m expecting to see Gov. Andy Beshear hand Louisville the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2017.

Photo Courtesy // Taris Smith, Louisville Athletics