LEXINGTON, Ky. --- With frequent flyer mileage that includes trips to the likes of Auburn, Ala., Manhattan, Kan., and Gainesville, Fla., the last two years, one wouldn't expect the Ball State Cardinals to feel too overwhelmed Saturday when they visit Commonwealth Stadium.
"Some of that's been eliminated," said Ball State coach Bill Lynch. "We took 19 seniors with us to Auburn and about 13-14 juniors. And these kids played at Florida and Kansas State last year, Wisconsin and South Carolina the year before that, so we've been in some of those. That's behind us.
"Our biggest thing is we've got to play better between the white lines once the game starts. When we've played in these games against major conference opponents, we just haven't played well enough."
Neither Ball State nor Kentucky played well enough last week in their season openers. The Cardinals dropped a 30-0 decision at Auburn --- a game which saw them post only 92 total yards and fail to cross midfield --- while the Wildcats saw arch-rival Louisville pull away late for a decisive 36-10 victory.
During practice this week, both teams seemed more focused on correcting their own mistakes than the opponents' Xs and Os.
For Kentucky, that means jump-starting an offense that was shockingly held to 213 total yards and no touchdowns against Louisville.
"They were pretty upset, and overall, they were mad at themselves," Morriss said of the Cats' offensive players after reviewing film of the season opener. "They were thinking that we could have done a little more here and there and been right in the game. Everyone took turns making mistakes. It was pretty much a group effort in screwing this one up.
"Most of the things we saw can be corrected. I was thinking about how much Louisville improved from when they played New Mexico State in their first game. We've got to improve a great deal as well before Ball State comes here. You're always going to improve after the first game. How much? We'll wait and see."
Many of UK's problems against Louisville were mirrored by Ball State at Auburn.
"Looking at them, they were a lot like us last week," Morriss said. "They tried to establish the run, and that didn't work. They tried to pass, and that didn't work. They just couldn't get anything going, and we know exactly what that feels like. Defensively, they just kind of got wore down by Auburn, more or less the same thing that happened late with us."
Ball State finished with only 60 yards rushing on 34 attempts, and a woeful 5-of-17 for 32 yards through the air.
"The biggest thing is we were very poor on first down. Our inability to do anything on first down put us behind the 8-ball and played into the strength of Auburn's defense," Lynch said. "We got ourselves into a lot of third-and-longs, and that just played right into the hands of Auburn's front, where they, without blitzing, were able to put pressure on our quarterback."
Quarterback figures to be one of the Cardinals' team strengths on Saturday. After being named the starter after four games last season, Talmadge Hill led Ball State to victories in five of its last seven games. The 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore earned MAC freshman of the year honors after passing for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Cardinals, who will feature an option running game as part of their varied offensive sets, also returns a 1,000-yard rusher in junior tailback Marcus Merriweather (6-1, 215).
"They've got a pretty shifty quarterback and a good running back," UK defensive coordinator John Goodner said. "They can mix it up and do a lot of things, but those are the main two guys we've got to be concerned about."
Defensively, the Cards' 4-3 set is keyed by linebackers Lonrenzo Scott and Shaka Johnson. They're two of nine starters returning on that side of the ball, although one of those players, senior defensive tackle Mark Zachery, suffered a season-ending knee injury at Auburn.
The UK defense will also be without a few key performers. Outside safety David Johnson (hamstring), defensive tackle Jeremy Caudill (back) and linebackers Jamal White (suspension) and Ronnie Riley (knee) are all out of action. Cornerback Jeremy Bowie is questionable with a sore groin.
Offensively, the Cats enter the game with uncertainty at quarterback. Morriss said he would not announce a starter for the game, rather, "You'll know when he runs out there on the field."
That means either sophomore Jared Lorenzen (12-31-1-121) or redshirt freshman Shane Boyd (3-6-1-34) could be under center for the Cats.
"They'll both play a lot," Morriss said. "It just depends on who's driving the team the best."
They may get a bigger test than expected. Ball State surrendered a respectable 368 total yards to Auburn, and held the Tigers to only a pair of field goals in the second half.
"If there was one thing that stood out about Ball State, in the fourth quarter, they were still playing hard," Morriss said. "They were flying to the football. There was no quit in their guys. You have to admire that quality, and I think they'll bring that same mindset down here because they've seen our film, too, and they know we're struggling offensively. So they're probably telling their players, if we can get our offense cranked up, we've got a chance to beat Kentucky."
The Cats may face more mental obstacles than physical on Saturday. They're seeking to avoid a letdown coming off such an emotional game against Louisville, something which has plagued them in second games the last two seasons against UConn (45-14) and South Florida (27-9).
"We've addressed it," Morriss said. "It's been like a hangover. I'm not sure what you can say about it, but it was definitely something we needed to address. I think our work tempo and that type of stuff is different than in the past. I think it's helped to pump them up a little bit, keep them focused on the game at hand."
Despite a nine-game losing skid on the part of the Cats, Lynch knows the odds are stacked against his team.
"Kentucky has very, very good talent on both sides of the ball, and speed that we don't normally see in the Mid-American Conference... Plus the size and strength," he said.
But a big opportunity awaits his team.
"We have a chance, not only for our own program but for the MAC, to prove that we belong," he said. "It's not a whole lot different than the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournament, where everybody's excited and you have the field of 64, and the teams not from the so-called major, major conferences . . . it's a chance not only for those teams but their entire conferences. We all feel that way when we go play these games."