LEXINGTON, Ky. - A rivalry game was just what Kentucky needed to snap out of a second-half tailspin and play the way it wanted.
Will Levis passed for two touchdowns, including a 3-yarder to Barion Brown in the third quarter, Matt Ruffolo kicked a career-best four field goals and the Wildcats topped archrival Louisville 26-13 on Saturday for their fourth consecutive Governor's Cup victory.
The Wildcats (7-5) limped in with five losses in seven games but regrouped to overwhelm the Cardinals (7-5) in all phases. Kentucky's defense harassed Cardinal quarterbacks Brock Domann and Malik Cunningham and forced a turnover from each leading to 10 points. Trevin Wallace's third-quarter interception of Cunningham and 19-yard return to the Louisville 16 was especially critical, setting up Levis' scoring pass to Brown three plays later for a 23-7 lead that put the game out of reach.
Earlier, J.J. Weaver stripped Domann of the football on a second-quarter sack and returned it to the 6, setting up Ruffolo's second field goal from 29 yards to make it 13-0.
"Our team responded how I believed they would," coach Mark Stoops said. "This game is important and recognized that from the moment I walked in the door. ... It's important for our football players and our staff, and I really appreciate the way we dug in, competed and finished the season."
Levis was 11 of 19 passing for 188 yards and also tossed an 8-yard TD pass to Dane Key on Kentucky's second possession. His pass to wide-open tight end Josh Kattus turned into a 70-yard catch-and-run and set the stage for his first score three plays later.
The Wildcats never trailed, even though it took another Levis TD pass for the Wildcats to really feel comfortable with Bluegrass bragging rights - again.
"Great way to end the year at home," said Levis, who beat Louisville for the second consecutive year. "The season didn't go the way we wanted and we needed the win and got it."
Chris Rodriguez Jr. rushed 24 times for 120 yards and broke the school record with his 20th 100-yard performance.
Ruffolo converted from 43, 29, 35 and 40 yards along with making both extra points for Kentucky on the way to becoming the first kicker to earn the Howard Schnellenberger Award as Most Valuable Player.
Louisville's Jawhar Jordan rushed 22 times for 145 yards, both career bests for the Syracuse transfer.
Cunningham, a four-year starter at QB, relieved an ineffective Domann in the second quarter and got Louisville (7-5, No. 25 CFP) within 13-7 just before halftime with a 6-yard TD run. His participation was somewhat surprising considering he missed last week's win over North Carolina State with an injured shoulder, and coach Scott Satterfield said afterward that Cunningham hadn't taken many snaps the past two weeks.
"Malik comes in and not fully healthy, but I felt we needed a spark," the coach added. "I appreciate the effort and the toughness."
Domann returned when Cunningham was injured again on the interception and threw a 27-yard TD pass to Tyler Hudson midway through the fourth cut the deficit to 26-13. Officials ruled that his two-point conversion run came up short after review.
Both struggled to get anything going offensively for the Cardinals, who played catch-up all night after winning five of six coming in and entering the College Football Playoff rankings last week.
"We just did not have enough offensive firepower," Satterfield said.
Before the game Kentucky honored 28 seniors including Levis, a Penn State transfer who is projected to be a first-round selection in next year's NFL draft.
Wildcats linebacker Chris Oats, whose career was ended by a stroke in May 2020, received loud cheers and an ovation. The Cincinnati native played in 25 games over the 2018 and '19 seasons with two bowl games before he was stricken.
Louisville: Everything that worked offensively during the Cardinals' 5-1 surge coming in failed miserably, whether Domann or Cunningham was behind center. Allowing a tight end to break an explosive was the first sign their defense would have a long day, and it never got better.
Kentucky: Besides out-gaining Louisville 346-309 overall, the Wildcats came up just six yards short of one of the nation's top rushing teams (164-158). Ruffolo had struggled at times this season but made every chance he got in the game that mattered - especially for teammates seeking to climb from a second-half swoon.
Louisville awaits third bowl assignment in four seasons.
Kentucky awaits school-record seventh consecutive bowl assignment.