The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: UK vs. WKU

Breaking down the highs and lows and all things in between from Kentucky's 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

THE GOOD:
Comeback Ability: Let's face it, this is a category for which you'd rather not have to boast. Kentucky should never trail a non-conference opponent at home by a 17-0 score. But that's the reality of things, and if it's going to happen, it's nice to know the game isn't over. Last year, if Kentucky fell behind two scores, you knew the Cats were done. No chance. That's no longer the case, thanks to a new-look offense that seems to thrive in the two-minute drill because, well, they're doing it for most of the game now. The 12-play, 77-yard drive to tie the game at the end of regulation was thoroughly impressive, capped by a 22-yard touchdown strike from Maxwell Smith to budding star receiver DeMarcus Sweat. It was the second week in a row the Cats have executed a scoring drive late in a half with very little time on the clock.

By George… : While UK continues to sign promising young talent at the running back position in recent years, Jonathan George seems to be the forgotten man. The junior from Alabama has gotten very few opportunities compared to his backfield mates, but all he does every time he gets into a game is produce. He got an opportunity Saturday night thanks to a pregame suspension for Raymond Sanders and Coshik Williams re-aggravating an injury. George took advantage of his big chance and wound up rushing 13 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown, eclipsing his career TD total in one night. He's earned the right to be a bigger part of the offensive package moving forward.

O-Line Play: Kentucky's offensive line remains a bright spot. The Hilltoppers came into this game licking their chops after sacking Alabama six times in the previous week, but got to the UK quarterback only one time on more than 60 drop-backs on Saturday. Matt Smith, Larry Warford, Zach West, Darrian Miller and Kevin Mitchell have been perhaps the biggest reason the Cats now have hope on that side of the ball.

What Wasn't Said: It's only __ days ‘til Midnight Madness." I'm sure it may have been uttered somewhere, but this is the first time I didn't hear it myself after an embarrassing loss. That's a good thing. UK's most loyal football fans are hurting right now, and they don't care how close it is to basketball season.

THE BAD:
Kentucky Scheduling: The UK program basically paid WKU a half million dollars to drive up the Bluegrass Parkway and embarrass it Saturday. Much as it has done for the Louisville program, UK is now helping elevate to WKU to new heights. In return, UK has received "They ‘spose to be SEC!" and "WKU is the new blue!" taunts from the Hilltopper players and coaches. WKU is laughing all the way to the bank. Scheduling is a challenge these days with the 12-game slate, but I have long maintained that, until UK is on rock-solid footing, it has no business playing non-conference games where there's any remote possibility of the Cats being defeated (let alone granting return games away from Commonwealth Stadium like games against Top 25 Louisville or next year's trip to Nashville to again play WKU.) Remember, it's NOT about what you UK should be. It's about what UK is. Mitch Barnhart has done more than any AD in my lifetime for UK football, but he's missed the mark on this one. He needs to take a page out of Vanderbilt's playbook and find a Presbyterian or two until the Cats can field an SEC-level team.

Mad Max: It had been something of a dream start to his sophomore season, but Saturday was a rough outing for UK quarterback Maxwell Smith, who threw four interceptions that helped put the Cats in a huge hole. One ball appeared to be a miscommunication with the wide receiver, but the other three looked like forced passes into coverage trying too hard to make something happen instead of returning to the huddle and living to play the next play. That's a hard thing for a quarterback to learn, especially when he's made so many great plays so far this season. Perhaps a bit overconfident.

The Punt Return Game: This was advertised as a big improvement area for the Cats this season coming off one of the least-productive years in school history. While UK has already surpasses last year's ridiculously-low 35 punt return yards for the entire season, the Cats aren't getting the kind of big swings in field position they had hoped with the dangerous Demarco Robinson fielding punts. He is currently 49th in the country (8.57 avg.) among eligible players. I have a feeling that has more to do with the blocking execution than issues on his end, although a couple of bobbles have hurt.

The TD That Got Away: In what loomed much larger at the end of the night than at the time it happened, Maxwell Smith and Gene McCaskill were unable to hook up on what should have been an easy TD pass in the second quarter. The ball sailed high from Smith, but McCaskill leapt and was still able to get both hands on it. Two plays later, Smith was intercepted in the red zone. Who knows what the BBN is talking about today if that play had unfolded in a different manner? The Friendly Ghost of Jerry Claiborne has tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me "That's the ol' If'n Game, JDrum."

Call: The "roughing the quarterback" penalty against Bud Dupree in overtime was one of the worst calls you'll see in that situation. Dupree blitzed, got to WKU's Kewaun Jakes as he was releasing the ball, and let up on the contact. It was neither late, nor excessive. Replays were tough to see if he made helmet-to-helmet contact, but that's not what the official called. It took WKU out of a 4th-and-2 situation at the 5 and instead set up 1st-and-goal at the 2.

THE UGLY:
Defense-less: I could go on for hours about this topic, but I'll try to be as succinct as possible. Kentucky is never going to be successful by SEC standards until it starts playing some semblance of defense. I'm 41 years old now ("I'm a man!") and UK's defense has been anywhere from bad to horrific on about all but four or five of those years on this planet. At this juncture, I'm starting to think it's cultural. Kentucky fans have always preferred high-powered offense and passing to fundamental elements of football success, and you can make a solid argument that UK can't go that direction due to its difficult recruiting situation, but eventually someone has to say enough is enough. The current NCAA team defense leaders includes the likes of UConn, Oregon State, Maryland, BYU, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, Utah AND Utah State, Iowa State and, gulp, Western Kentucky in the top 20. None of those programs have a strong recruiting base. Like UK, all of them have to rely on athletes from other talent-rich areas across the country to field a solid defense. And they do it. There's no excuse for UK to be among the nation's worst defensive units on an annual basis, and fixing that problem should be priority No. 1 moving forward.

The Coaching Debate: It's unavoidable at this point: Joker Phillips' hot seat is no longer a seat at all. It's more like dancing on burning embers while someone aims a flamethrower at you. It's tough to watch unfold because we're talking about one of the most popular players in the history of the program and a guy who has ascended to his dream job. I've said it many times before in this space, but if UK wants long-term stability in its football program, it needs a guy like Joker Phillips to succeed, a guy who genuinely wants the job and is not looking for a stepping stone to a bigger job/paycheck. However, many fans had made up their mind prior to this season, and an embarrassing loss to Western Kentucky won't help matters for those who were still in the "jury's out" group. I believe the situation should be revisited based on what happens in SEC play, but have we seen anything whatsoever to indicate the Cats are capable of winning a league game? It's going to take a minimum of four SEC wins to make a bowl game, something UK has done only four times since 1978.

By The Numbers:

1-11: Kentucky's record under Joker Phillips when losing the turnover battle.

2.2: UK's average gain per rushing attempt; 19 carries, 41 net yards.

3: Top 25 coaches poll votes received by the Hilltoppers after nudging the Cats to the No. 3 program in the Bluegrass State.

6: Days until UK travels to The Swamp to face a Florida team that rushed for 336 yards in a 37-20 beatdown of No. 23 Tennessee.

8: Consecutive games without a first-quarter touchdown for UK. The last came against Jacksonville State on Oct. 22 of last year. 61: UK's pass attempts. The BBN loves its passing, but this volume is no recipe for success.

72: UK's position in the national team defense rankings (399.33 yards per game) prior to starting SEC play. Will triple-digits be coming soon?


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