Charlie Strong's team has struggled to get the running game going in the first two games this season. In a 24-17 loss to Florida International last Friday, the Cardinals rushed for only 83 yards on 41 carries, while failing to convert a critical fourth and one inside FIU's 10-yard line late in the second half.
Louisville's running game has been slowed because of an offensive line that has yet to gel. The Cardinals are breaking in five new starters up front and the transition has been anything but smooth, especially with junior center Mario Benavides out of the lineup.
"Our offensive line is a young, inexperienced group," Strong said. "It's going to take some time for them to develop."
Two freshmen – John Miller and Jake Smith – are expected to start at guard against Kentucky. Senior tackles Ryan Kessling and Hector Hernandez will make only their third career starts this weekend. Center Alex Kupper was a reserve last season and opened fall camp as the starting left tackle. Don't expect Strong to make changes to the lineup this weekend.
Starting quarterback Will Stein, who was sacked six times against Florida International, tries to provide encouragement to his offensive line.
"I try to motivate them in the huddle and tell them to keeping pushing and grinding," Stein said. "There's not a lot of things I can do to help them technically, that's on them. They're still and young and still learning. They have a lot to improve, as well as the offense as a whole."
Though Louisville's offense found success through the air last week against FIU, throwing for 349 yards and two touchdown receptions, Strong has no intentions of abandoning the running game.
"If you can't run the ball you're showing that you aren't a tough football team," Strong said. "You have to have toughness in your program. How do you have toughness? Run the football.
"We have to run the ball and our offensive line knows that we have to do a better job running the football. We always tell our defense they can't let the other team run the ball against them because that means they're beating you up front."
Louisville's lack of success on the ground so far this season has hampered the Cardinals ability to put post big scoring numbers. UofL , which had 446 total yards against FIU, but scored just 17 points, is averaging a meager 19 points per contest, 99th nationally. Fortunately, Kentucky hasn't been much better scoring points, ranking just 93rd in the country in scoring offense at 20.5 points per contest.
"We've got to get better at finishing and score more points," Stein said. "You can't have 450 yards of offense and score 17 points and win the game."
Neither Louisville nor Kentucky has set the world on fire offensively so far this season. While the Cardinals have struggled to establish a running game, Joker Philips Wildcats are averaging only 105.5 yards per game through the air and average just 267 total yards.
"This game has to be won up front," said Strong. "It's our offensive line vs. their defensive line, and our defensive line vs. their offensive line. Who's going to win those up front battles?"
Louisville's offensive line didn't consistently win those battles against Murray State and FIU. Strong is hoping his inexperienced offensive linemen can generate push up front against a Kentucky defense that is allowing 115 yards rushing per game.
"We have to find a way to run the football," Strong said. "They have two big guys inside that can hold gaps and push people back. We have to find a way to move them."