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By HAL MORRIS, email@example.com
LOUISVILLE — Offensive lineman Mario Benavides knows what’s at stake when Louisville kick off against Kentucky on Sept. 2 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The Cardinals who are favored to win the Big East, are in some preseason top-25 polls and are a double digit favorite against the Wildcats.
“Whenever you’re talking about a rivalry game, there’s always that natural — whether we’re favored or not —that natural edginess as far as the underdog goes. We’ve been the underdog plenty of times against Kentucky,” said Benavides during UofL’s media da.
“I think it’s very important for us to have a good game. Obviously, the most important thing for us is to go get a win, but we haven’t had that kind of trademark game in the beginning of the season for a while, so I think it’s different for us.”
Louisville went 7-6 last season and won a share of the Big East title before losing to North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl. The Cardinals return 10 starters on both sides, but are still a young team with just nine seniors.
Louisville players said at media day that they had not seen a lot of film on Kentucky yet and would learn more about the Wildcats as the game got closer. But sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said the opener against Kentucky needs to set the tone for the year.
“The first game can sometimes determine what kind of season you have,” said Bridgewater, who threw for two touchdowns off the bench in last year’s 24-17 win in Lexington. “We just expect to go out and execute the game plan and hopefully things go well.”
Bridgewater expects a different type Louisville team in this year’s opener.
“It’s going to be very different. We’re going to play faster. We have more athletes,” he said. “Last year we had guys who were just playing.”
Sophomore offensive tackle Jamon Brown knows the offense needs to come out crisp in the opener.
“It’s a big rivalry game, so there’s pressure to get the win. I think we’re just going to come out and play our game and do it the best we can,” he said. “As a unit, we just want to set the standards high. We want to get the season off to a good start. And of course, a win would be a great start for us. So if we get the win in the first game, it will be a big confidence boost.
“A win’s a win for the most part, but we want to try and win as best as we can. That means if it’s a blowout, it’s a blowout. But a win’s a win, we’ll take it.”
Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell are the only two senior starters returning on defense. Smith, who had 11 tackles last year against Kentucky, said not knowing who the UK quarterback would be does not hamper what the Louisville defense can prepare for.
“We practice our scheme against every single one of them. We’re ready for anyone,” he said.
Junior running back Dominique Brown, who had 91 yards rushing against UK last year, said coaches are not letting the hype of the game get in the way of preparation.
“Our coaches do a great job of not letting us get involved in stuff like that,” he said. “They don’t really want us to get involved in that kind of stuff.”
But Benavides knows the Cardinals have to be wary of an underdog UK that may come in playing fast, loose and with no pressure.
“I guess you could compare it to the way we were playing last year at their place. We definitely don’t underestimate them,” he said. “I’ve watched film on them plenty of times. I know my redshirt freshman and sophomore years we lost to them. I’m 1-2, so I definitely don’t overlook them. They’ve beaten us before and they could definitely do it again if we’re not ready.”
Benavides knows he’s going to have a struggle against UK’s defensive tackles, Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Benavides missed last year’s game with a leg infection and did not get to go against Cobble, but he has played against Rumph and is impressed with both.
“I think they’re very explosive players. They’re both big guys, I think for their size they move really, really well. Going against the guys we have on our defense is going to help me prepare for them,” he said.