Pre Game Reading: Breathing Room
Well, it’s been a much more peaceful week among Wildcat faithful, free of all the handwringing and prophecies of doom that circulated around the football program after the opening loss to Louisville. The problem is that since I wasn’t able to listen to (much less host) last week’s edition of First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon Sundays on NewsRadio 630 WLAP), I have no idea if that’s due to apathy, Kentucky fans obsessing over a pair of bizarrely scheduled exhibition basketball games or if Kentucky’s win last Saturday over Kent State has bought the team – and head coach Joker Phillips a week’s worth of breathing room.
I hope it’s the latter. It SHOULD be the latter (although I honestly fear it’s the basketball game thing). Yes, the Kentucky win was only over Kent State — a lowly MAC team, but if you followed the (for entertainment purposes only) line and the overall mood of the Kentucky faithful, it was a big win for Kentucky. Picked by 7 points at home, Kentucky beat a MAC school the way you’d expect an SEC school to beat a MAC school – by 33.
Don’t get me wrong, the win didn’t eliminate questions about the Cats. They did still give up 409 total yards to that MAC team. That said the defense held the Golden Flashes scoreless for the last 22 minutes, something that seemed implausible regardless of the opponent after a Traiyon Durham touchdown run for Kent cut the UK lead to 17-14 in the third quarter. So did the defense figure something out or did Kent wear down? If the defense did figure something out, will it stay figured out this week? If Kentucky has had one major issue consistently over the last five or so years, it seems like it has been carrying momentum over from one week to the next. They’ll have to do that today against Western Kentucky.
Last week Western didn’t have a single three and out series against Alabama; and, well, Alabama. That said, they also didn’t score. This isn’t the same Western offense that featured Bobby Rainey at running back a year ago. And while Kentucky clearly isn’t Alabama defensively, I think we all believe they are a fair amount better than the Austin Peay team (from the Football Championship Subdivision) that Western ran over in week one.
I don’t have questions about the UK offense. Max Smith is developing into a star. Don’t take my word for it. Ask former Kentucky quarterback and current graduate assistant coach Andre Woodson, who raved about Smith this week. He’s completing 73% percent of his passes (up from just over 50% last year) and has already thrown for 634 yards. The only thing you’d like to see Smith do better at this point is hit a deep route. He’s oh-for-the-season in that department. He throws the ball too well for that statistic to last.
The running game found some form last week behind big runs from Raymond Sanders, finishing with 185 yards as a team. Was some of that the Kent defense getting worn down? Maybe, but the yards count just the same.
Beyond that the offense, which was near the bottom of the national statistics in plays of over 20 yards last year, scored from more than 30 yards out three times a week ago.
Even with the win over Kent State and the relative peace in Wildcatland, the dynamic for Kentucky – especially for its coach is no different than it was a week ago. Watching this Kentucky team play – especially on offense – it is clear that the Cats have some outstanding young players. If Joker Phillips wants to be around to coach them, he needs to win games like today’s against the Hilltoppers. At its best Kentucky has very little margin for error in an average football season. The Cats have to win non-conference games and hope they can get two wins in conference to go to a bowl. With the loss to Louisville, that math only gets them to five wins, which depending on how Kentucky competes with its SEC opponents may be enough to keep Phillips around another year (and it should). A loss puts the season into panic mode.
Finally, I hope Joker and the staff played the “they supposed to be SEC” clip from last year’s broadcast on a constant loop this week – in the weight room, in the training room, in the study hall, at team meals. Even though they eked out a win last year against Western, Kentucky players should see that and be embarrassed. If you hope to play football with the big boys, you can’t be getting legitimately smack-talked by a Sun Belt team. Not even a good one.
If the Cats have made the progress I think they have in the last two weeks it shouldn’t be an issue tonight at Commonwealth.
Cats by 13.
Before the season started, I mentioned on the show that there was a chance that by the time Kentucky saw highly touted Arkansas in Week 7 (Oct. 13) that the Hogs could be in complete disarray and ripe for the picking. Is there any doubt that’s the case after last week? Arkansas lost its starting quarterback (at least for the time being) and eventually lost the game to Louisiana-Monroe (we all know how that feels, right?). And while ULM may be a good team (as of this writing they are hanging with Auburn), they still shouldn’t match up with an Arkansas team player-for-player. If we learned anything at Louisville, it’s that following Bobby Petrino and coaching a team he recruited isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. And current Arkansas head coach John L. Smith didn’t even change the offense. This could be an issue Arkansas has all year long.
Win or (God forbid) lose; join me, Larry Vaught and Anthony White tomorrow on First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk from 9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP and wlap.com. We’ll talk all about the game and what’s next for the Wildcats. We’d love to have you join us.