Not only could a win against the Cats provide a positive springboard this season for the underdog Cardinals, it also might help subdue fan unrest at home, at least momentarily. A third straight loss to Rich Brooks, though, could have negative consequences across the board for Kragthorpe's program.
"This is a huge game for both schools," Kragthorpe said. "It's a rivalry game played early in the year so it can give you a springboard."
There's been a reversal of fortune on the gridiron in Kentucky since Kragthorpe arrived in 2007. Prior to his arrival, Louisville had beaten Kentucky four straight times under Bobby Petrino and enjoyed a string of nine straight bowl games. But Kragthorpe is 0-2 against Kentucky and has failed to make a bowl game in his first two seasons at UofL. Meanwhile, UK has won three straight bowl games and Brooks is looking to notch another victory against Kragthorpe's Cardinals this weekend.
"We want to beat Kentucky," said Kragthorpe. "I want to beat Kentucky. There's no doubt I want to win it and it's going to take a great performance on everybody's part to get it done because they've got a very good football team."
Kentucky does have a very good team. The Wildcats enter the contest as at least a 10 point betting favorite after blowing out Miami, Ohio 42-0 in their season opener two weeks ago. Behind junior quarterback Mike Hartline, Kentucky rolled to 488 yards total offense against Miami, limiting the Redhawks to only 188 yards offense.
While Kentucky looked good in their first game, Louisville was sloppy. The Cardinals committed 14 penalties for 128 yards and two turnovers while underperforming in a 30-10 win over Indiana State.
Last season, Louisville's offense was completely stopped by Kentucky's defense. The Wildcats forced five turnovers a year ago and held the Cards to just 51 yards rushing. If Louisville expects to get back in the win column against Kentucky, Kragthorpe's offense will have to be more effective than it was last year at PJCS.
"I thought we had a very productive week last week in terms of getting a few practice days in and making some corrections and starting to implement some of the UK game plan," Kragthorpe said. During their bye-week, Louisville used their practice time to correct mistakes made against Indiana State. This week, the Cardinals will focus more intensely on Kentucky.
We addressed some areas where we thought we were deficient against Indiana State," said Kragthorpe. "The good thing about it too is that we got a chance to start to install parts of the game plan and we've gone back over the weekend and looked at all the practice tapes again and kind of honed down the plan a little bit. We've looked at different things, added a few things, taken a few things out that we feel will be good in the game plan."
A big part of that game plan is likely focused on ways to get running backs Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell going against Kentucky. Typically, the team that wins the battle on the ground between these two teams wins the game. That held true last year and Kragthorpe knows it's important to establish a strong rushing attack, especially with an inexperienced quarterback playing his first road game in college.
Against Indiana State, Anderson and Powell rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns. Anderson led the way with 93 yards and two scores. Neither did much against Kentucky last year. Anderson gained 31 yards on 12 carries, while Powell had only 16 yards on 6 rushing attempts. They'll have to improve those numbers if Louisville plans to spring an upset against the favored Wildcats.
"The biggest thing is we've got to run the ball better than we did last year," Kragthorpe said. "We've got to get ourselves into second and medium and second down and short and then the play call sheet opens up a bit. We were in down and distance situations last year where we weren't able to do that. The key for us is to run it well on early downs because that sets up so many other things we'd like to do offensively with playaction passing."
Louisville also has to minimize miscues and penalties against Kentucky. Five turnovers doomed the Cardinals in last year's matchup. The biggest issue heading into Saturday's game is cleaning up penalties, many against the offensive line, that thwarted drives against Indiana State.
"We have to make sure we play with great hands and great feet so we're not in position at the end of the play tugging on someone that's an easy call for an official," Kragthorpe said. "It's something we addressed and talked about all week long."
Finally, Louisville has to play with more precision and execute better than they did in the opener. The Cardinals, as Kragthorpe insisted, were sloppy against Indiana State. They'll have to play a 'clean' game in Lexington to come out with a win against the Cats.
"This will be an emotional game but we're going to have to divorce ourself from being emotional," Kragthorpe said. "We've got to concentrate on getting ready for the game and practicing well Monday through Friday. We've got to do a great job of preparing all week long."