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Why would Kentucky ever stop playing Louisville in football?

·4 min read
Alex Slitz

The coronavirus forced us to wait two long years between Kentucky-Louisville football showdowns.

That hiatus from the Governor’s Cup rivalry built up the curiosity over what had changed since we last saw Mark Stoops’ Wildcats running over Scott Satterfield’s Cardinals back in 2019.

Turns out, the answer was not a darned thing.

Kentucky yet again bludgeoned Louisville with its physical running game Saturday night and rolled to a 52-21 blowout victory before a Cardinal Stadium crowd of 55,018.

“It feels really good to put it all together,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said after what was, likely, his team’s most complete performance of the 2021 season.

Just as it did in 2018 (a 56-10 UK win over U of L) and 2019 (a 45-13 Wildcats victory), the Kentucky offensive front manhandled Louisville up front.

As a result all seven of Kentucky’s touchdowns came on the ground, four by quarterback Will Levis. On five of the TD runs — plays of 29, 7, 5, 13 and 41 yards — UK ballcarriers matriculated into the end zone without a Louisville defender ever laying a hand on them.

That has not been a rare occurrence in recent battles for the Governor’s Cup.

In Kentucky’s past three meetings with Louisville, the Wildcats have scored 17 rushing touchdowns — and on 10 of them, the UK rusher went untouched into the end zone.

“Just from watching the games in previous years, I knew (Kentucky) was way more physical than (Louisville),” said UK slot receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, whose nine catches gave him 94 for the year, a new UK single-season record.

In spite of Kentucky’s recent dominance of Louisville as well as the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 SEC) having compiled a better record this year while playing in a better league, U of L (6-6, 4-4 ACC) entered the game as a three-point favorite.

That puzzling fact provided UK with ample motivational kindling.

Start with Stoops. “I didn’t understand it,” the UK coach said of his team being installed as the underdog. “It pissed me off.”

Move to Levis. “For sure, a little extra motivation,” the Kentucky QB said.

Then go to Robinson: “I just laughed. Laughed and thought, ‘They’ll see Saturday.’ And they saw. We all saw that outcome.”

Just as UK’s 2016 win over Louisville is remembered in Wildcats lore as “The Stephen Johnson Game” and the 2019 UK victory over U of L is “The Lynn Bowden Game,” the 2021 Cats triumph over the Cards will long live as “The Will Levis Game.”

Flashing the form that made him Penn State’s situational-running QB in his previous football life, Levis carried 14 times for 113 yards and the four scores.

Early in the game, when Kentucky’s dominance had yet to be established, Levis seemed to bail the UK offense out of all its tight spots with his legs.

“He played an exceptional football game today,” Stoops said of the quarterback. “Way he threw it, making decisions and he ran it so effectively and so tough.”

Endearing himself to the more excitable among UK backers, Levis emphatically deployed the “L’s Down” hand symbols in the Cardinal Stadium end zones after his touchdowns.

“It felt good. It felt really good,” Levis said of going “L’s Down.” “I’m normally not one to do anything like that. But with the rivalry this week, it was something I planned.”

In our state’s marquee college football rivalry, Kentucky has earned the Governor’s Cup trophy three times in a row and in four of the last five meetings with Louisville

“The trophy means a lot,” Stoops said. “We have a place for it (in the display case at the Joe Craft Football Training Center) for a reason. And that’s where we want to go back and put it. It looks good in there. Come see it.”

There has been speculation in the Louisville media that UK might end its annual series with U of L once Oklahoma and Texas enter the SEC and the league, presumably, goes from an eight- to a nine-game conference schedule.

For various reasons, I’d be surprised if that happens.

1.) There is scuttlebutt that the SEC might go to pod scheduling, which could mean Kentucky and its primary league rival, Tennessee, might no longer play annually.

In that case, playing U of L would help fill the rivalry void.

2.) Even allowing for the fact Kentucky has gone 12-15 vs. Louisville in the modern Governor’s Cup (since 1994), that still represents 12 victories that have special resonance with UK fans.

That matters because Kentucky’s success rate vs. the other two teams Cats backers most yearn to beat — Florida and Tennessee — is two wins over the Gators since 1986 and three victories over the Vols since 1984.

3.) Ceasing to play the Cards at the exact point when Stoops has opened a vast gulf between UK and U of would seem illogical.

Playing — and beating — Louisville is a “huge deal for our team. Huge deal for our fan base,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said. “That’s what makes sports great, especially rivalry games.”

Simply put, why would Kentucky give up on a rivalry of which it is now in complete control?

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