Louisville Courier Journal
Published 11:05 PM EST Nov 30, 2019
LEXINGTON – Kentucky's offensive game plan coming into the 2019 Governor's Cup wasn't a secret.
The Wildcats, the No. 12 rushing team in the country, were going to let quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. and their plethora of running backs lead them to victory. Not because Kentucky didn’t want to throw the ball, but because it couldn't.
With former wide receiver Bowden playing quarterback the last half of the season, the Kentucky passing game has become nonexistent.
Louisville knew what to expect, but had no answer. The Cardinals gave up 517 rushing yards en route to a 45-13 loss on Saturday. It was Louisville’s first loss in Lexington since 2009 and gave the Wildcats a two-game lead in the rivalry.
"We knew they were going to run the football, but it’s still hard to stop,” Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said. "Defensively we've struggled quite honestly, we all know that. We struggle this year tackling."
Kentucky, which set a single-game rushing record against UT-Martin last week, broke that record Saturday. It was the first time the Wildcats ran for more than 500 yards in program history.
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Bowden, the MVP of the Governor’s Cup, had 284 yards and four touchdowns by himself. Chris Rodriguez added 125 yards and one touchdown, while Kavosiey Smoke had 75 yards on two carries. Each of them had a run of at least 60 yards.
But why did the Wildcats have such success running the ball?
Well, Louisville has struggled to tackle well all season, but it’s high-scoring offense made up for those woes most of the year. On Saturday the missed tackles were too much to overcome for an offense that also struggled. It was the Cardinals worst performance against the run this season.
"Yeah, it was bad today,” Satterfield said. “It was bad last week too. Against this team right here, you’ll have a long day if you don’t tackle. They run hard."
Kentucky’s offensive line, which has been the catalyst to it running for 252 yards per game this season, dominated Louisville's defensive front.
Also: Record-setting Lynn Bowden performance leads Kentucky to blowout of Louisville
Satterfield and defensive tackle G.G. Robinson called Kentucky’s line one of the best Louisville has faced all season. Their talent, mixed with a strong blocking scheme, basically took the interior linemen out of the game, Robinson said, which was part of Louisville’s problem.
Louisville had just two tackles for a loss in the game, which came from linebacker Dorian Etheridge and safety Khane Pass. Robinson was the only lineman with more than two tackles; he finished with five. Of the Cardinals 49 tackles, only 12 came from the defensive line.
The movement from Kentucky’s linemen and tight ends on designed pulls and zone reads forced the Louisville defensive linemen to one side of the field, even if the play was going another way.
"All the d-linemen would end up on this side of the play, while they are running this way because we have to play our assignment over here,” Robinson said. “It would be all the linebackers or safeties filling then."
When Kentucky hit that second level, it usually found a big gain. The Wildcats averaged 12.9 yards per carry, the most the Cardinals have given up this season. Clemson averaged eight yards per carry against the Cardinals earlier in the season.
Many of Louisville’s defensive problems this season can be traced back to missed assignments. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, at first glance, even when the defensive line was forced out of the play.
Louisville prepared all week against the running scheme, so not much caught the Cardinals off guard. The defense simply couldn't make the tackles required to win.
"That’s what it was. We didn’t execute. The person that had to make the tackle just didn’t,” linebacker C.J. Avery said.
To combat the Kentucky rushing scheme, Louisville attempted to load the box. The downside to doing that is that if tackles are missed, like they were on Saturday, big plays can happen.
Kentucky had four straight second-half touchdown runs of 60, 46, 64 and 32 yards. While the Cardinals have been known to give up big plays in the passing game, they've fared well against keeping long run plays out of the end zone. Before Saturday's game the Cardinals gave up just three rushing touchdowns of 35 yards or more.
“Once they clear that five-to-six-yard area there’s not anybody else there and if you don’t make the tackle, it’s going to be a touchdown,” Satterfield said. “That’s why they had so many big plays.”
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Tackling isn’t something that can be fixed from week-to-week during the season, both Satterfield and defensive coordinator Bryan Brown said after the loss to Syracuse. But it can be worked on in the offseason.
Louisville, though it has been much improved this season, still lacks depth across the defense and strength up front. That was exposed in a major way.
Expect that to be a point of emphasis as the Cardinals prepare for next season, even with the bowl game coming up in a month.
"It’s frustrating when you have a guy there and you don’t get them down,” Satterfield said. “It’s frustrating as players and coaches as well. But we have to get better from it, learn and grow and get better in that aspect.”
Cameron Teague Robinson [email protected]; Twitter: @cj_teague; Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.