For the first time since anybody on the current Louisville football team has arrived at the school, the Cardinals will be the favored team heading into their rivalry game against Kentucky on Sunday.
Perhaps that is a big reason why the intensity surrounding this game has grown a few notches since the summer. Trash talk between both sides has been flying. A mini-brouhaha over the placement of Kentucky billboards on the Louisville campus set message boards and Twitter aflutter. The back and forth has resembled talk that surrounds the basketball teams, not the football teams.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong has done his best to keep his players focused on the game. After some of his players took to Twitter to boast about how badly they would beat the Wildcats, he made a point to tell them to stop talking. The trash talk has subsided, but players they are alluding to the game anyway. Defensive lineman Jamaine Brooks tweeted Tuesday, "Everybody asking bout Sunday just get ya popcorn ready."
Different feel in Louisville indeed.
"I try to get our players to stay away from all that talking because when the game is played, you're going to have to do your talking on the field, so back away from the talking," Strong said earlier this week. "What’s going to be key for us is what we have to get done with our football team. We can’t worry about Kentucky. ... You can talk about the billboards, you talk about what our guys are saying, but on Sunday, they get to prove who is the better football team."
Kentucky players have continued to sound off. After quarterback Morgan Newton slammed the type of schedule the Cardinals play earlier this month, linebacker Avery Williamson recently told WHAS-11 TV in Louisville, “I’d love to hit Teddy [Bridgewater]” to “let him know how physical it’s going to be."
Bridgewater has stayed above the fray. When asked earlier this summer if he paid attention to some of the talk coming from Kentucky, he said, "Not at all." Bridgewater is 1-0 against Kentucky, having come off the bench last season to lead the Cardinals to the upset win.
But center Mario Benavides has much more experience in this rivalry game, having started against the Wildcats as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He has suffered through the losses, and the down times and understands why there is a different sense surrounding this game.
The roles between the teams have essentially been reversed, and hopes are high not only for a victory in this game, but for another Big East championship.
"The only thing I can compare it to is the excitement and the fire the Kentucky fans had when we went to their place my first year starting in 2009, except it was the other way around," Benavides said in a phone interview. "It was a tough environment for an 18-year-old kid in his first game starting in a big-time environment. Now we have such great fans in Louisville. They’re waiting for an opportunity like this, for a potential season like this.
"We’ve always had support but now we’ve given them something to be excited about. It’s definitely a totally different feel, especially for me being one of the older guys. There's a lot of excitement, but you always have that guy on your shoulder telling you to just focus in and play the game and not get too caught up in all that other stuff."