Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 26-13 victory over Louisville in the annual Governor’s Cup game at Kroger Field on Saturday:
1. Kentucky met the motivational moment
Twice this season Kentucky met a highly motivated opponent and failed to match that opponents’ motivation. Oct. 8 at Kroger Field: South Carolina 24, Kentucky 14. Nov. 12 at Kroger Field: Vanderbilt 24, Kentucky 21.
Nov. 26 was a different story. A 7-4 Louisville team arrived at Kroger Field determined to snap a three-game losing streak to the 6-5 Wildcats in the Governors’ Cup. Instead, the Cardinals departed with their fourth straight series loss. This time, Kentucky not just matched its opponents motivation, it surpassed it.
“Making sure that trophy stays in Lexington, Kentucky means a lot to us and the community,” outside linebacker Jordan Wright said afterward.
It showed. The Cats led from start to finish. They held the Cards to 309 yards total offense and turned Louisville over twice. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s offense played a clean game against a U of L defense that led Power Five schools in takeaways. UK’s Chris Rodriguez rushed for 120 yards. Quarterback Will Levis threw for a pair of scores. And Matt Ruffolo finished a rocky season with a storybook ending, kicking four field goals to earn most valuable player honors.
“Just really appreciate our football team and their effort,” head coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “I appreciate the way they dug in and finished the season.”
Indeed, after that home loss to Vanderbilt, the lowest moment in what has been a disappointing season, the Cats picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and played No. 1-ranked Georgia tough before losing 16-6.
You have to think some of that carried over to Saturday’s rivalry game, one in which Kentucky was clearly motivated to win.
2. Kentucky’s defense was stellar once again
It was easy to see why Ruffolo earned the media vote for MVP honors. The embattled kicker was a perfect 4-for-4 on the day, hitting field goals of 47, 29, 35 and 40 yards. He was also a perfect 2-for-2 on points after touchdowns. He got perfect snaps and holds on all six of those tries.
Still, MVP honors could have easily to gone defensive coordinator Brad White and his defensive unit. It held Louisville to 309 yards and a pair of scores. It came up with three big turnovers — on a strip sack by J.J. Weaver early in the second quarter; a Trevin Wallace pick midway through the third quarter and a Jordan Lovett interception to seal the deal with late in the final quarter.
“Coach White had an amazing game plan,” Weaver said afterward.
Where the defense really made a difference was the opening possession of the second half. Louisville had scored with 37 seconds left in the second quarter to cut UK’s lead to 13-7 at halftime. And the Cards received the kickoff to start the second half.
Kentucky made sure the momentum didn’t carry over. Louisville quickly went three-and-out on its first possession of the third quarter. After a Ruffolo field goal extended UK’s lead to 16-7, Wallace picked off a Malik Cunningham pass to set up a TD by the home team for a 23-7 lead.
The UK defense also got an emotional boost by the on-field presence of senior linebackers DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones. Both had missed multiple games with injuries, yet both were on the field Saturday. Not just on the field. Both made plays.
“You guys are trying to make me friggin’ cry on camera and I’m not going to let you,” an emotional White said afterward. “I told the locker room I’ve got more before I start boo-hooing.”
3. Yes, 7-5 is a lot better than 6-6
Kentucky didn’t win the SEC East title in 2022. It did not make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. It did not post a winning conference season. It will not post double-digit victories for the second straight year.
It did avoid going 6-6. And a winning 7-5 regular season looks and sounds much better than a break-even 6-6. And the Cats could add an eighth victory in a yet-to-be determined bowl game.
There are plenty of questions to be answered before then. Will Rich Scangarello remain as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator? Will Levis play in the bowl game? Will Rodriguez? Will Kentucky be able to keep its young stars out of the transfer portal?
Stoops said Saturday he wants to enjoy the victory before getting into the decision-making about the future of the program.
“I want to enjoy this and let everybody enjoy this win,” said the coach. “You know, I know there is work to be done and we all know that, so I appreciate the effort and the plan to put ourselves in a position to be successful.”
After that, stay tuned.