For Rich Brooks, Saturday turned out to be "bring your kids to work day" at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Kentucky head man found himself in the stomach-churning position of playing Eastern Kentucky without his starting quarterback (Mike Hartline), his best running back (Derrick Locke) and, in a surprise, his best wide receiver/all-around player (Randall Cobb).
Yet UK handled outmanned but plucky EKU 37-12 thanks, in no small part, to a breakout day from its kiddie corps.
In his fourth start in place of the injured Hartline, true freshman Morgan Newton had his best game as a collegian. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Carmel, Ind., product completed 20 of 29 passes for 187 yards and the first two touchdown passes of his Wildcat career.
Getting expanded playing time at wide receiver because of a thumb injury to Cobb, true freshman La'Rod King continued a late-season emergence. The 6-4, 190-pounder from North Hardin had career bests with four catches and 41 yards receiving.
In a mop-up role, true freshman running back Donald Russell flashed a bit of the big-play potential that UK normally relies on Locke to provide. The 5-11, 205-pound Floridian (West Palm Beach) ripped off an electric 79-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
Said King: "With all the guys we had out, the young guys knew we had to step up. And we did."
The most encouraging aspect for UK was the strong play from Newton. Benefitting from a drop down in class from the SEC to a Football Championship Subdivision foe, Newton showed poise and, with one exception (more on that later), rock-solid decision-making.
"I thought he managed himself very well out there except for that one (play)," Brooks said. "He threw the ball accurately. I thought he had a very, very good day."
Late in the third quarter, Indiana's reigning high school Mr. Football threw his first Kentucky TD pass. On a first-and-10 at the EKU 14, Newton found tight end Maurice Grinter near the 5. Grinter powered into the end zone.
"I thought that was a big-time throw," said Joker Phillips, the Kentucky head coach for offense. "He waited and waited and waited, and then he gunned it in."
Of his first college TD toss, Newton said he had a big problem: He couldn't figure out how to celebrate.
"I didn't know what to do," he said. "By the time I got down there, the celebration (in the end zone) was pretty much done. What should I do? I pretty much just ran to the sidelines."
Newton did not have much time to channel his inner Chad Ochocinco for an improved touchdown celebration.
On EKU's second play from scrimmage following the TD, Kentucky linebacker Sam Maxwell intercepted a T.J. Pryor pass to give the Cats the ball back at the Eastern 18.
So Newton ran back on the field and threw another TD. This time, he put the ball into the end zone to a well-covered Chris Matthews. The athletic 6-5 UK wideout went up and got it.
"It was very pleasing to see Morgan put the ball up there where (Matthews) could go and make a play on it," Brooks said. "That's the kind of play that we would like to see him make more on a regular basis."
The young QB did have one play that was not the kind Kentucky wants to see more often. On the first drive of the third quarter, he tried to hit King on a short out.
Eastern Kentucky defensive back Andre Evans read the play and cut in front of King for what should have been an easy pick six.
Newton's thoughts when he saw Evans break on the ball? "I was thinking I better go try to tackle the guy," he said.
Evans dropped the ball.
It was not a shock that Newton locked in on King. The two true freshmen seem to have that special "quarterback-receiver" connection.
Against Mississippi State last week, they hooked up twice on passes.
"He is another underrated recruit that came in with maybe not as much attention, but he has big-time skills," Brooks said. "La'Rod King is going to be a really, really good football player."
Given that Russell came into Saturday with 10 carries all season, one wonders if the Kentucky brain trust wishes now it had redshirted him.
During his TD jaunt, Russell showed a big-play burst. "That's why we recruited him," Phillips said. "He can make plays."
Turns out, the moral of the victory over EKU that kept UK's hopes alive for a fourth straight bowl was simple:
Kentucky's offensive stars were away; its kiddie corps made plays.
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or email@example.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.