UK football

John Clay: Cats appear to be testing Phillips

Cats testing former assistant

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 1, 2010 

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Kentucky's Chris Matthews was tackled by Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks in the fourth quarter. Matthews had five catches for 58 yards.

PABLO ALCALA

In 360 minutes of Southeastern Conference football this season, Kentucky has led its opponents by a grand total of 13 minutes and one second.

It never led Florida.

It led Mississippi for a pair of short stretches — up 7-0 from the 12:04 mark to the 3:58 mark of the first quarter; up 14-7 from the 14:19 mark to the 10:39 mark of the second quarter.

It never led Auburn.

It took its first and winning lead over South Carolina with 1:15 left in the contest.

It never led Georgia.

It never led Saturday night in its 24-17 loss at Mississippi State.

Kentucky was tied in several of those games — 7-7 and 14-14 with Ole Miss; 7-7, 31-31 and 34-34 with Auburn; 17-17 with Mississippi State.

But for whatever reason, Joker Phillips' first team as head coach has not quite been able to get over the top, leaving it near the bottom of the SEC East, sitting 1-5 in the league and 4-5 overall. Only Tennessee, at 0-5, has a worse SEC record.

It's not as though you can make the case the Cats have faced overwhelming conference competition, either. Florida is 3-3 in the league. Georgia is 3-4. Yes, Auburn is near the top of the BCS standings, but Kentucky is fortunate to miss the other two SEC West bell cows, Alabama and Louisiana State, in the conference rotation.

So what has kept the Cats from getting over the hump?

My thoughts go back to Saturday's first quarter when it became apparent after two series that something was up with Chris Matthews. The wideout was not on the field. Sure enough, after inquiries to UK sports information personnel sitting on press row, we were informed that the senior from Los Angeles was being held out for the first quarter.

For UK, that has become an almost weekly occurrence. Matthews, Danny Trevathan and Ronnie Sneed have all been held out of the first quarter of one game or another. Add that to the one-game suspension handed to wideout Matt Roark after last weekend's DUI.

None of these is a huge indiscretion, though certainly the charge against Roark is serious. But it points to the contention that the Cats have been testing their first-year head coach, who is making the transition from the one making recommendations to the one making the decisions.

One of the best things about Phillips being Rich Brooks' successor is continuity for a program that has precious little stability. But we were probably mistaken to believe the transition would be seamless. The players are still getting used to the former assistant being the head coach. And the head coach is still getting used to handling his players from a different perspective.

It might be a bit of a reach, but you wonder whether some of that hasn't contributed to much of this: the 14 turnovers in six SEC games, the ill-timed penalties, the chronic slow starts, the frustrating inability to finish comebacks.

Back in August, it didn't take much of a crystal ball to see that the two Mississippi road games held the keys to the season.

Sweep both, and the Cats had a chance to go 9-3 with a 5-3 conference mark, its first winning SEC record since 1977. A split of both, and the Cats could still end up 8-4. Lose those two, however, and it was hard to see Phillips' team finishing better than 7-5.

And that's where we are, Kentucky in need of three consecutive wins to close out the regular season above .500.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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