There is a different feeling around the University Louisville football team heading into its rivalry game against Kentucky on Saturday at Kroger Field.
Last season, the Cardinals were coming off a disappointing 34-10 loss at Houston and beaten in every phase of the game.
Following a pair of dominating victories over Virginia and Syracuse, the Cardinals feel good about themselves leading into the 30th meeting of the Governor’s Cup.
“I think we’ve made a lot of improvement,” head coach Bobby Petrino said. “Defensively, I think it’s great to have (junior cornerback) Jaire (Alexander) back. Not only is he a tremendous player, but his energy, his excitement, his emotion, all of that helps everyone else out there on the field. Their confidence level goes up. He brings to the defense what Lamar (Jackson) brings to the offense, as far as his energy.”
Not only has Alexander helped the defense shut down the last two opponents, the emergence of senior defensive end James Hearns has put fear into the eyes of opposing quarterbacks. The Tallahassee, Fla., native has 6.0 tackles for loss, including 4.0 sacks, as the Cardinals have held the opposition to an average of 15.5 points and 306.0 yards of total offense.
“You see the way (redshirt senior linebacker) James Hearns has been playing, and his ability to get after the quarterback and get the ball on the ground,” Petrino said. “I think that’s really helped us too is he’s playing as fast as he has all year in the last couple games. All those things add up and help us a lot.”
Hearns, a senior that leads the team with 7.0 sacks, knew his season was at a crossroad after a couple of disappointing losses. With that, he used the time off to get re-energized for the last stretch of the season.
“I think going into the bye week, we hit a point in the season where things hadn’t gone exactly the way we wanted to, but like I’ve said before, coach told us that when you get backed into a corner, either you’re going to lay down or you’re going to fight,” Hearns said. “We all collectively came together on that bye week and decided to really put in the work and get back to being a hard-nosed defense. At the end of the day, you want to put your identity on tape because the teams next week are watching that tape. I think over the last couple of weeks we’ve wanted to show people who we really are.”
While a lot of the focus has rested on the improved play of the defense, the offense consistently has been among the best over the course of the year, now with a physical running attack leading the way.
Playing in adverse conditions last Saturday in a 56-10 win over Syracuse, the Cardinals went to the ground game to stomp the Orange. Louisville rushed for 411 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 9.8 yards per carry.
“We’ve been moving the ball consistently all year offensively,” Petrino said. “I think the ability to hand it to the running backs and the offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage allows Lamar to stay fresher, stay into the focus and the concentration of the passing game. When he is running the football, it takes a load off of him and puts it on other people, and that helps him stay into it for four quarters.”
While junior quarterback Lamar Jackson rushed for over 100 yards for the 21st time in his career, it was senior running back Malik Williams who beat down Syracuse with a career-high 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He opened the scoring with a 46-yard run and added a 56-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
“I’m just really happy that he’s back playing,” Petrino said. “I know how hard he worked and how devastated he was when he had the elbow injury, because he was feeling really good about his knowledge of the game, his knowledge of the offense and how he was running the ball. At one point, he thought his senior year was over with, but he just did a great job of working. Our training staff and doctors did an unbelievable job, so it’s just good to see him back out there playing fast and hard.”
Heading into its rivalry game, Louisville has plenty of momentum as it takes on its rival from down the road. Kentucky snapped a five-game losing streak to the Cardinals with a 41-38 win last season at Papa John’s Cardinals, but UofL wants to focus on the game, not the opponent.
“I don’t think you have any extra energy. It’s just the next game up on the schedule, and it just happens to be our rival,” Hearns said. “As far as preparation goes and as far as game planning, I don’t think you do anything outside of what you’ve normally done. I think you stick to the same schedule, same script, and at the end of the day, there’s not magic you can really put into it. You go to practice and you work hard, you work on your craft, and that’s how you’re going to win the game.”