Kentucky coach Mark Stoops still wary of Louisville despite Cardinals’ struggles this season

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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats will conclude the regular-season against instate rival Louisville Saturday at Kroger Field. Kickoff is set for noon. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

If you ask Mark Stoops, Louisville remains one of the top teams in the country. Although the Cardinals bring a 7-4 mark into Saturday’s Governor’s Cup showdown against the Wildcats, Stoops is wary of the Cardinals.

“They’re still a very good football team,” Stoops said. “Really, when you have a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Lamar Jackson) behind center it puts a lot of pressure on you.”

Jackson accounted for 381 yards and four touchdowns in Louisville’s 56-10 rout of Syracuse in the Cardinals’ home finale last weekend and Stoops has been impressed with Jackson’s performances this season.

“He’s a fantastic football player,” Stoops said. “He creates plays all over the place. He’s a dynamic guy. He does a very good job. I think he’s throwing the ball – He’s always thrown the ball good in my eyes, because he’s always been so dangerous. He’s got such good touch on it, but he’s definitely you can see from experience just sitting back there and distributing the ball when he has time. He does an excellent job there.”

Stoops and the Wildcats (7-4) will be seeking a second-straight victory over Louisville. In last year’s meeting between the two rivals, Kentucky struck early and held on for a stunning 41-38 triumph over the Cardinals at Papa John’s Stadium, ending a five-game losing streak to its instate rival.

In order to keep the streak alive, the Wildcats will be without junior tight end C.J. Conrad, who suffered a season-ending “mid-foot” injury in a 42-13 loss at Georgia last weekend in Athens. Stoops also will be without backup tight end Justin Rigg and will be counting on Greg Hart to fill the void against the Cardinals.

“He’s in a boot,” Stoops said of Rigg. “He has an ankle injury as well, and Greg (Hart) has played in a cast on one wrist for about two or three weeks and the last couple weeks the other wrist has been in a cast during practice. So, hopefully he’ll be healthy this week.”

Although the Wildcats concluded the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule with a blowout loss to the Bulldogs, Kentucky broke even with four wins in four tries for the first time in back-to-back fashion since the 1998-99 campaign. With a win over Louisville, Kentucky can reach eight victories in a regular-season for the first time in 33 years.

“You keep on trying to knock down as many doors as you can,” Stoops said. “The fact that we had back-to-back .500 wins in the SEC is again, we want more. It’s easy to look back and get the what ifs, it’s human nature. I understand that. But I am proud of some of the things we’ve done, and getting eight wins is another step forward.”

Kentucky lost two of its three conference games by a combined margin of four points, including a 28-27 setback to struggling Florida on Sept. 23 at Kroger Field. Stoops admitted he was disappointed the Wildcats failed to get over the proverbial hump in close setbacks to the Gators and Ole Miss (37-34).

“I’m disappointed about that as well. I think everybody — I said that last week,” Stoops said. “We had one more opportunity to get an SEC victory this past week and that didn’t happen, but I am proud of the way we’re continuing to improve.”

Prior to Saturday’s contest against the Cardinals, the Wildcats will honor their seniors, including senior quarterback Stephen Johnson, a driving force behind Kentucky’s success during the past two years.

“They’ve been really a joy to coach, and as I’ve mentioned countless times in here throughout preseason and throughout the year, that the leadership on this team is very strong. And it starts and ends with the seniors. Those guys have been very good and instrumental in some of the positive steps that we’ve taken. And hopefully younger guys will learn from that, and continue to grow and push the program forward.”

Gametracker: Louisville at Kentucky, noon, Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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