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U of L the first of many big games of Stoops era

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Mark Stoops will coach in his first UK-U of L game on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops will coach in his first UK-U of L game on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It took until the final question of his introductory press conference for Mark Stoops to get a question about his new archrival.

Even then - hours after arriving in Lexington on an early-morning flight- Stoops didn't try to downplay the annual showdown with Louisville as just another game on Kentucky's schedule.

"Oh, I know it's a good rivalry," Stoops said in December. "We're going to embrace that rivalry. Really looking forward to it."

Nine months later, the wait is almost over.

On Saturday at noon ET, UK (1-1) will host the No. 8 Cardinals (2-0) in Commonwealth Stadium. Stoops remains eager to take on U of L for the first time, but he also knows this won't be the last time he leads his team into a matchup with the Governor's Cup on the line. It also won't be the last time UK takes on a high-profile opponent with a national-television audience - in this case, on ESPN - tuned in.

"It's very important to myself, this team, our program, the fans, and everybody," Stoops said. "It's very important. But we'll be in a lot of big games here, we hope. As we improve this program and keep on making those steps and getting better and better, we'll be in a lot of big games in the SEC."

U of L is big, and the Wildcats wouldn't have it any other way. Players come to UK to play in these kinds of games. But at the same time, it's just another step in the development of a team and a program.

That's true even for the seniors who will never again suit up against the Cardinals.

"It really is big," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "You can say it's another game, but it's big. I'm really excited about. I want to go out on top my last time playing Louisville. I'm excited about it, amped up, but you've gotta take it a game at a time and try not to get too excited."

For that reason, the coaches really aren't talking about U of L more than they would any other opponent during game week.

Unlike Stoops, Brown been a part of this game before. He was in a helmet and pads back in 1998 when UK set the all-time single-game yardage record in a 68-34 win over U of L, signaling the arrival of the first iteration of the Air Raid offense in the Bluegrass.

"We haven't spent a whole lot of time building it up," Brown said. "It's out there. Everybody in their classes are talking about it. The families are talking about. They realize the importance. I don't think they're going to approach the game any differently than they have."

Brown then amended his statement slightly.

"Well, they better approach it better than they did the first one," Brown said, "but I don't think they're going to approach it any different than the second one."

The first one, of course, was a 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky, the second UK's 41-7 win over Miami (Ohio). Against Miami, the Kentucky offense was spurred by a two-quarterback rotation featuring Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow. Stoops and Brown expect to use the same system against Louisville, though they will face an admittedly tougher test in the Cardinal defense.

Through two games, U of L ranks in the top 15 nationally in total defense and top 10 in points allowed.

"The thing that sticks out about their defense is when you turn it on they fly to the football," Brown said. "They play with a lot of energy, a lot of passion, they're physical and they fly to the football. If I was coaching defense, that's how I would want my guys to play, because they are really into the game."

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals are perhaps even better. Led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, U of L has scored 93 points in two games while averaging more than 400 passing yards.

"He's just very good at what he does," Stoops said of Bridgewater, an early Heisman Trophy frontrunner. "He has a great feel in the pocket. He eludes the pressure when and where he needs to, and the rest of the time he sits in there and distributes the football."

Bridgewater has plenty of weapons at his disposal as well. U of L has size and speed in its receiving corps, led by junior DeVante Parker, who has caught nine passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns already in 2013. Three more receivers - Eli Rogers, Damian Copeland and Kai De La Cruz all have at least 128 receiving yards.

U of L hasn't been as dominant in its running game, rushing for 277 yards and averaging 4.1 yards per carry, but Stoops believes that has had as much to do with the way opponents have elected to defend the Cardinals as anything else.

"I think they do a nice job of keeping you off balance," Stoops said. "They run it. They threaten you with their run game, and they love taking their shots and their play-actions off it because they're very skilled at wide receiver, and Bridgewater does a heck of a job with the play fakes and getting the ball down the field."

Considering Bridgewater's ability to throw the deep ball, UK's inexperienced secondary figures to be tested. Fortunately for the Cats, sophomore Cody Quinn is expected to be fully available for the first time this season after suffering a high-ankle sprain during fall camp.

"It is (big to have Quinn back)," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said, "because you go against the caliber of receivers that they got and the quarterback obviously is really good so anytime you can get your better guys back out there and get everybody full strength, it's a positive."

An even bigger positive would be if UK's veteran defensive line can pressure Bridgewater. Louisville has given up just one sack in two games and neither Eastern Kentucky nor Ohio have been able to generate much in the way of a pass rush against the Cardinals. The Cats, however, believe they can.

"I haven't seen him uncomfortable," Williamson said. "That's kind of reassuring that he hasn't seen any pressure in his face. So that gives us an opportunity to see how he's going to react if we get pressure on him."

That's still far easier said than done, but facing a team as dynamic and balanced as Louisville is a task the Cats embrace.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Stoops said. "Obviously, we know Louisville has done a great job, very good on both sides of the ball, well-coached. So it will be a real challenge. We're looking forward to it. Just looking to improve. I thought we made some strides last week to improve our team, and we're looking to do the same thing again this week."

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