Rivalry Game Another Chance for Step Forward

There wasn’t a person in Commonwealth Stadium happier than Jojo Kemp.

The senior running back has poured his heart and soul into turning around the Kentucky football program. So when the Wildcats reached bowl eligibility for the first time in six seasons, Kemp celebrated like he meant it.

By Tuesday, he had all the mimed bowling rolls out of his system. By Tuesday, it was all about Louisville.

“Last week was about taking a step forward,” Kemp said. “This week is about the same thing, so guys are really just focused on controlling what they can control, being more detail-oriented and just let everything take care of itself.”

A win over the No. 11 Cardinals (9-2) would certainly be a big step for UK (6-5) when the two teams face off on Saturday at noon at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. In fact, Denzil Ware sees the potential step as even bigger than the bowl.

“This game means a lot more to me than a bowl game or anything else because that’s just how bad I want to win,” Ware said. “That’s how bad I want to beat these boys.”

No one on the UK roster has a bigger challenge ahead than Ware and Josh Allen. The two outside linebackers have the unenviable task of rushing and then bringing down Lamar Jackson, the dynamic quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner who has thrown for 3,109 yards, rushed for 1,367 yards and accounted for 47 total touchdowns.

“He is an absolutely phenomenal player,” Mark Stoops said. “What I admire most about Lamar Jackson, is you can see his leadership and you can see his toughness. Just watching some of their games when I could get a chance throughout the year, and of course on film you don’t see as much as on TV, but you could see how strong he is and what type of leader he is. They are good across the board and well coached across the board, but when they need a play he is there.”

Nobody knows that better than UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas, who recruited Jackson to Louisville before coming to Lexington.

“He’s just an awesome player,” Thomas said. “That’s why he’s one of the leading candidates for the Heisman. Obviously our defense and every other defense he’s played has their hands full.”

Hands full or not, Ware isn’t letting the challenge overcome him. 

“I respect him as a person,” Ware said. “I respect his game. I respect Louisville. I respect their players. And I respect being the underdog coming into this situation. But at the end of the day, I’m not focused on Lamar Jackson. I’m focused on my team and I’m focused on going out there and doing what we have to do to win this game on Saturday.”

It’s going to be all hands on deck come Saturday, with UK needing a complete effort to upend the Cardinals on the road. Louisville enters the game ranking sixth nationally in rushing defense, allowing a paltry 99.2 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Incredibly, it’s been nearly a month-and-a-half since a U of L opponent reached 100 yards.

“They are very well coached,” Stoops said. “Todd (defensive coordinator Todd Grantham) does a great job. They are very good and multiple. They have very good players. I am quite familiar with a few of those guys and they are good players and play extremely hard. They will play both four down and some odd. They are good across the board.”

Contrast that with Kentucky’s rushing offense, which is averaging 301.2 yards over its last six games. The Cats, even with the quality of their opponent, have reason to be confident against the Cardinals.

“Really, it’s been that way all year,” head coach of the offense Eddie Gran said. “Vanderbilt had a good defense, Florida, Alabama. Every defense that we’ve faced this year has been pretty good up front. At the end of the day it does become about us, our technique, our footwork, how we communicate. That’s what we’ve done a great job of. We’ve done a really good job of just communicating and guys knowing and seeing indicators so when you do have that movement we’re able to pick it up.”

Another reason for confidence is the way UK has played for long stretches of its last two games against Louisville. Last season, the Cats led 24-7 at half before falling, 38-24. The season prior, Louisville needed a touchdown with 2:47 left to win a back-and-forth affair, 44-40.

Losses like those are exactly the kind that inspired UK’s offseason motto.

“That’s been the motto the whole season, is finish,” Kemp said. “So guys know what’s at stake and we’re just really trying to focus on the little things so we can get our team where it needs to be.”

The path there next goes through Louisville.