Maxwell Smith throws a pass Sunday. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Two plays into UK’s first defensive drive of the 2012 season, things were looking good for the Wildcats.
Louisville faced a third-and-nine from its own two-yard line. That’s when things went wrong for UK.
Sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater beat tight coverage for a 23-yard pass for a first down. Eight minutes later the Cardinals had scored for the first time en route to a 32-14 win.
“Martavius Neloms got great coverage,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips of the play. “The guy made a great throw, and a guy made a great catch.”
Twelve plays later the Cardinals had scored their first touchdown. The drive totaled 15 plays for 99 yards. A two-point conversion added insult to injury.
UK scored on its next drive, but little went right for the Wildcats after that. Louisville scored on drives of 85 yards and 93 yards in the second quarter to take a 22-7 lead into the locker room.
“It really couldn’t have gone worse for us today,” said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter.
Louisville totaled 466 yards in the game. The Cardinals outgained UK 219 yards to 93 yards on the ground, extending the streak of games in which the winner of the rushing battle has won the Governor’s Cup to 17. The Cardinals were playing without their leading returning rusher, Dominque Brown.
Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards in just less than three quarters of action. In the first half, Louisville averaged 8.5 yards per snap.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong pulled Bridgewater late in the third quarter in favor of senior Will Stein, but even that was not enough for a UK comeback.
“I just (figured) Teddy was cramping up because he ran up and down the field on us,” Phillips said.
The poor defensive showing wasted what was a promising effort from UK sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who completed 35 of 50 pass attempts for 280 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Smith was making his fourth career start and first since winning the job from senior Morgan Newton in fall camp.
The Wildcat offense wasted several chances to make the game interesting. Junior tailback Raymond Sanders and senior tailback CoShik Williams both fumbled on drives deep in Louisville territory, and the punting unit failed to convert a fake punt even though Phillips said Louisville lined up exactly the way they expected.
“We felt like we had to win up front,” Phillips said. “We didn’t win up front. You can’t allow a team to rush for 216 yards or whatever they rushed on us and say you won the physical battle up front.”
Louisville converted four of six third downs and one of one fourth downs in the first half. The three scoring drives went for 15 plays, six plays and 10 plays.
“It’s demoralizing, to be honest with you,” Minter said of the long drives. “It’s about the worst thing that can happen to you.”
“Personally, I feel like we let the offense down,” said senior defensive end Collins Ukwu. “I feel like there a lot better offense from last year. We just got to do better at what we do.”
Phillips and the offense were not ready to place all the blame on the defense though.
“We obviously have to do a better job finishing drives,” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “That was probably the biggest thing today: we didn’t finish when we got ourselves behind down-and-distance wise.”
UK returns to action Saturday at home against Kent State. Phillips and his coaches said they were eager to look at the film and evaluate what went wrong Sunday.
Phillips said he knows one thing for certain.
“I think we’re better than that, I really do,” he said. “You guys may call me crazy, but we’re better than that. We’ve obviously got some work to do.”