LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Coming off two disappointing seasons, Scott Satterfield started this season on shaky ground with Louisville football's fan base and his "hot seat" warmed up even more when the Cardinals wobbled to a 2-3 record in a schedule tailor-made for a 6-0 or 5-1 start before the competition toughened.
But U of L (7-4) unexpectedly recovered to win five of its last six games, earn votes in the AP top-25 poll and break into the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings at No. 25 for the first time since 2016. The Cards' only loss in the last seven weeks was at No. 10 Clemson (31-16) on Nov. 12. So Satterfield is back in the good graces of Cardinal Nation for the first time since leading UofL to a remarkable turnaround from 2-10 to 8-5 in his inaugural season of 2018.
Now, in the sporting world of 'what have you done for me lately' comes another hurdle for Satterfield: ending Kentucky's recent dominance of the Governor's Cup. Another decisive loss in the rivalry at 3 p.m. Saturday at Kroger Field (SEC Network) would almost certainly lead to renewed criticism of the coach.
UK (6-5) has won three in a row, with U of L scoring a total of 44 points while the Wildcats have AVERAGED 51.
Two of those sound defeats came under Satterfield when the pre-game point spread indicated a virtual tossup. In 2019, when UK was favored by three points, the Cats romped 45-13. Last season UofL was the pick by three before taking a 52-21 beating. (There was no game played in 2020 due to the SEC limiting nonconference games during the pandemic).
So when Satterfield calls Saturday's matchup a "huge game," he could be referring to his own feelings in addition to those of Louisville's players and fans. Since the modern series began in 1994, the only first-year coach to lose his first three games against Kentucky was Steve Kraghorpe. He wasn't around for a fourth season.
"It's huge. There is no other thing to say, other than that," Satterfield said. "There's a lot of people running around this state that bleed the color blue. There are people in this city that bleed the color blue. We represent all of the people that bleed red and Cardinal Nation. There's a lot of things that go into this game."
Again this season, the teams appear to be evenly matched, with UK a slight favorite at 2 1/2 points.
A major factor in the game could be the availability of starting quarterback Malik Cunningham. There has been no announcement from U of L this week whether or not Cunningham will be able to play after missing last week's 25-10 win over NC State with a bruised shoulder on his right (throwing) arm. If not, Brock Domann will get his third start of the season, having led the Cards to wins over Virginia and the Wolfpack.
"Everyone knows that this game decides who had a successful season in the eyes of Kentucky people," said Domann, a Colorado native. "If I've learned anything here, it's that this last game means a lot to a lot of people. So we're going to make sure we go out there and put our best foot forward and shift the tide."
UK dominated both lines of scrimmage last season, with quarterback Will Levis running for 113 yards and four touchdowns, the only 100-yard rushing game of the fifth-year senior's career. His highest total on the ground this season is 22 yards in last week's 16-6 loss to No. 1 Georgia.
Levis has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards and 17 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. Running back Chris Rodriquez Jr., who had 121 yards and a TD as the Cats outgained the Cards 511-356, has rushed for 784 yards and a 5.2 average per carry with six touchdowns.
"We've heard all about (Levis), who's a top 10 (NFL draft) pick," Satterfield said. "Kentucky can play big ball and turn and hand the ball off to a big back that can really run (Rodriguez). The wide receivers are extremely talented. We know what we're facing, so it will be a big challenge for our defense."
However, this time Louisville seems to have the advantage when it comes to at least its defensive front vs. UK's offensive line. The Cards lead the nation in sacks with 41, while the Cats are 125th in sacks allowed with 40. U of L is 12th in tackles for loss with 7.4 per game vs. UK's 7.0 in TFLs allowed (109th). U of L is also second in turnovers created with 28 and solid against the run, giving up 139 yards per game while the Cats have averaged just 116.8 ypg. on the ground (107th). And U o L's red zone defense is seventh against UK's red zone offense at No. 116.
Like Louisville, Kentucky has thrived defensively, its 321.2 yards allowed per game ranking 19th nationally in total defense, while UofL is No. 37 at 347.2. The teams are identical in points allowed at 19.4, 12th in the country.
"Defensively, they're really good," U of L offensive coordinator Lance Taylor said. "They're big, they're long, they're athletic, they're fast, they play physical and they play really sound. They make you earn everything."
Along with snapping their three-game losing streak in the series, the Cards are seeking to earn their first victory in Lexington since 2017 (44-17).
"We're ready," linebacker Monty Montgomery said.
QUOTABLE--Taylor, who is in his first season at U of L after previously coaching at Notre Dame, on when he realized how big the U of L-UK rivalry is: "I learned that as soon as my moving truck got here."