Blue skies and sunshine were in abundance Saturday in Lexington as in-state rival Louisville visited Kroger Field to take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Optimism was high for a competitive game as the kickoff sailed downfield in this early noon game, but Louisville jumped all over the ill-equipped Wildcats, scoring early and often to squelch all enthusiasm from the home fans in a 44-17 butt whooping.
The truly sad part is this game was even less competitive than the score indicates. It was 31-10 at the half. We departed after the second drive in the third quarter as Louisville had an insurmountable lead. Kentucky proved inept at moving the ball on offense, particularly in the red zone, and that’s with their running back Benny Snell racking up an impressive 211 yards.
A buddy of mine, Dennis, was kind enough to offer me a ticket to this rivalry showdown, and being both team’s had 7-4 records, both are going to bowl games, and a victory could push the winner into a possible New Year’s Day game – it seemed this likely would be a fun showdown to hang at with friends.
The tailgating aspect was ideal. Dennis’ law firm, Middleton & Reutlinger, brought their party trailer that unfolds to reveal a satellite flat screen television, gas grill, full bar and tent cover to give the 20-to-30 of us in attendance all the shelter and comforts necessary to get our pre-game groove off to a roaring success.
But as I wandered around the stadium-grounds talking to fans, there was zero sense of excitement in the air. There wasn’t trepidation either. It was complete and utter ambivalence.
Outside the stadium, it was a festive atmosphere as a bluegrass band was picking away on-stage, and kids clad in UK blue were playing 4-0n-4 touch football, but it all felt more like attending a picnic than what should surround a rivalry football game. Everyone was just going through the motions to make a decent show of it.
Going in Vegas had Louisville as a 10-point favorite. That’s a relatively big number considering these teams have the same record, both have curious losses and neither have a signature win. The obvious difference between the two was Lamar Jackson. He is a difference maker, and UK doesn’t have any of those caliber players on its roster. This was the junior Louisville quarterback’s regular season finale, and he was going to want to make a statement on the home field of his rival.
Turns out the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner did not disappoint. Jackson was unstoppable, leading Louisville to scores on their first eight possessions of the game. Jackson completed 15-21 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 156 yards, as Louisville totaled 559 yards of offense, rushing for 343.
After Louisville gifted Kentucky a 41-38 win last season, the Cardinals have now won six of the last seven, and knotted up the series record at 15 wins each.
I’m afraid this game, from tailgating to lopsided loss, encapsulates the state of UK football. Coach Mark Stoops and the Kentucky football staff should be concerned, because it’s hard to build a successful program around ambivalence.
But this is the rub of trying to sell football at a place like Kentucky. The basketball team achieves at such a high level, while football hasn’t won a meaningful game in forever. The SEC is a beast of a football conference to play in, and is frequently regarded as the best from top to bottom. Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and Florida feast on the Cats the same as UK’s basketball team rolls up gaudy wins on all the football schools.
Adding to the disruption in the Force of Big Blue Nation was the added push to show off the recently updated block lettering for “UK,” and the newish secondary Wildcat insignia Nike redesigned that is adorning fan swag, flags, warm-up shirts for the basketball team and is featured on the hips of the football uniforms.
I took an informal poll from walking around outside the stadium before the game, and asked those seated around me inside, as there was plenty of chatter going on openly about it, and it was a resounding 27-0 in disfavor of both changes.
The re-imagined wildcat head appears amateurish. More on a quality level of something seen in renderings for high school mascots. The first thing the majority of folks mentioned, me included, was it reminded them of Kansas State. A funnier take was someone describing it as the result of Chewbacca mating with a staple remover. OUCH!
Seriously, put a staple remover next to this emblem and tell me there isn’t a resemblance.
Lord knows the millions of dollars spent to means test these redesigns in focus groups and get them finalized – but with an on-field product such as what was displayed Saturday, that money could have been better spent.