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Offensive strides can't overcome miscues, defensive flaws in opener

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Maxwell Smith completed 35-of-50 passes for 280 yards in UK's season-opening loss to Louisville on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith completed 35-of-50 passes for 280 yards in UK's season-opening loss to Louisville on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rain wasn't a possibility for Kentucky and Louisville's annual showdown for the Governor's Cup, it was supposed to have been a certainty. With the remnants of Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the Bluegrass, the forecast called for close to a 100-percent chance of rain throughout the game.

When the skies first opened three-and-a-half hours before kickoff, it seemed impossible they would close. But moments before the Wildcat and Cardinal captains strode to midfield, the rain stopped. The clouds remained, but, to the surprise of everyone, the rain stayed away, proving once and for all that it's impossible to predict much of anything a season opener.

That concept was only reinforced by what happened on the field.

U of L's 32-14 win was about what most experts would have predicted, but the way it was arrived at was far from it. The Cardinals were heavily favored and playing on their home field, while UK was young and with question marks all over the field. Among the biggest question marks was whether the Wildcat offense - specifically the passing game - that had ranked among the worst in Division I a season ago would be any better.

It turns quarterback Maxwell Smith and the offense were what UK was most able to rely on.

"It was good to see," Smith said. "Obviously we might not have gotten as many drives as we wanted, but overall I thought we did a pretty good job. You just can't go 2 for 6 in the red zone. That's what killed us."

On Sunday, the Wildcats moved the ball more effectively than they had at any point in 2011 against a defense as good as Louisville's. Just twice last season did UK roll up more than the 373 yards the Cats gained on Sunday. Not once last year did the Wildcats convert more than 50 percent of their third downs as they did against their rivals on this afternoon. After completing just 50.9 percent of passes as a team in 2011, Smith went 35 for 50 with 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Employing a hurry-up offense, a passing attack that distributed the ball to 11 different receivers and runners that combined to average 4.9 yards a carry, the unit bore little resemblance to its former self

"That's pretty much the way we've been practicing, and that's the way we plan on playing," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

UK moved the ball almost at will, but mistakes undid much of that good work. The box score may show the Cats scored touchdowns on two of their four red-zone drives, but twice more UK reached the U of L 25 without scoring a point. Running backs CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders each lost a fumble deep in opposing territory, Craig McIntosh missed a 41-yard field goal and once more UK failed to convert a fourth down from the Louisville 12.

Those mistakes may have been the reason the Cats put only 14 points on the scoreboard, but they weren't the cause of the 32 posted by the Cardinals. After playing its best down the stretch of 2011, the defense keenly felt the loss of leading tacklers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.

Even though the UK offense and special teams forced the Cardinal offense into starting its first five drives inside its own 25-yard line, sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had no trouble leading his team up and down the field. Before Bridgewater was replaced by backup Will Stein midway through the third quarter, U of L had amassed 420 yards and 32 points. Just two of Bridgewater's 21 attempts fell incomplete as he threw for 232 yards.

"The obvious is we didn't play well," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "I don't know how many ways we can say it. We didn't play well, we didn't coach well, we didn't do a lot of things well. The Cardinals did a lot of things right. Give them credit, they took the (Governor's Cup) trophy - kept the trophy in this case - and we got to get back to work, try to get better."

Things didn't start so inauspiciously for UK though. After Landon Foster's first career punt glanced off the hands of returner Kai Dominguez and was recovered by the Cardinals at the U of L one-yard line, the Wildcat defense forced Louisville into a third-and-long situation. Bridgewater dropped back to throw from his own end zone and delivered a perfect pass to Damian Copeland for 23 yards with Martavius Neloms in tight coverage. From there, Louisville would finish off a 99-yard touchdown drive that set the tone for the afternoon's proceedings.

"The first two plays of the game, you're hanging well," Minter said. "Then all of a sudden, (Bridgewater) makes a great throw on a third down. We can argue whether we should have backed off coverage, but it was a great throw in the hole. From there it was downhill."

A season ago, UK's defense did its best to carry the offense. The role reversal is unmistakable, and doesn't feel good to veterans from last year's unit.

"Personally, I feel like we let the offense down," defensive end Collins Ukwu said. "I feel like they're a lot better offense from last year. We just got to do better at we do and just play more physical, look at the film and be better at our assignments."

Ukwu's line was projected to be the strength of not only the defense, but the team as a whole. That was not the case against Louisville.

"One of our goals is we felt like we needed to win up front," head coach Joker Phillips said. "We didn't win up front. You can't allow a team to rush for the (219) yards they rushed for on us and say you won the physical battle up front."

The defensive line won't have much time to lick its wounds, as UK will have to turn around and take on Kent State on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Commonwealth Stadium on just six-days rest. Before preparations for the Golden Flashes can begin, the Wildcats will focus on self-improvement. Phillips is convinced they have it in them.

"I think we're better than that," Phillips said. "You guys might think I'm crazy, but we're better than that."

There isn't a player on the team who wasn't visibly disappointed with Sunday's result. The Wildcats understood the opportunity they had in facing Louisville and they understand what a loss to their archrivals means to fans, but they also have a message for UK faithful.

"Fight on with us," Ukwu said. "We're not going to give up. We're not going to stop trying. We're just going to keep playing as hard as we can, so come to Commonwealth and support us."

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