BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Karma seemed to have Joker Phillips set up with a dream scenario.
The last time Phillips wore the Kentucky uniform as a player was in a bowl game in historic Legion Field. Way back in 1984, Phillips caught six passes to help Jerry Claiborne's Cats upset Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Yet rather than a triumphant return to Birmingham for a bowl in his first season as head coach of his alma mater, Phillips found the ultimate nightmare trip.
Pittsburgh whipped Kentucky 27-10 to claim the BBVA Compass Bowl trophy on a blustery, chilly Saturday in this cavernous old stadium.
Instead of capping its fifth straight winning season and fourth bowl victory in five years, Kentucky instead ended Phillips' first campaign with a 6-7 record.
"This, obviously, hurts," Phillips said afterward. "We didn't play with a lot of confidence or poise."
For the Cats, this was an all-systems failure.
The UK offense sputtered. Playing without suspended senior quarterback Mike Hartline, UK had a puzzling game plan, especially early.
Rather than take the pressure off sophomore quarterback Morgan Newton by putting the game in the hands of stars Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, UK ended the first half trailing 13-3 with Cobb having touched the ball only three times and Locke seven times.
"I was really looking forward to this game because I felt healthy, felt like the early-season Derrick Locke," said Locke, who missed four games earlier with a shoulder injury. "But I didn't get the touches I wanted. I felt like I should have gotten more. I'm not mad, but I wanted more."
For the game, Locke finished with 12 carries and caught six passes. Cobb — in what might have been his final game in Blue and White — had only eight touches from scrimmage (five receptions and three rushes).
"We had some plays dialed up for Randall," Phillips said afterward. "We didn't get the ball to him enough, obviously. But that's always said when you don't win the game."
The UK defense was pretty much the same as it ever was. With new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter calling the defensive signals for the first time, Kentucky allowed Pitt to control the game by rushing for a robust 261 yards.
Senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said the Cats were familiar enough with what Pitt was doing "that we were calling out on the field when they were going to run the ball. And we still couldn't stop it."
Then there were the UK special teams. Put simply, they were a nuclear disaster.
One Pittsburgh touchdown came after a blocked punt gave the Panthers the ball at the UK 10. Another came after a failed Kentucky fake punt let the Panthers start at the Kentucky 35. Then there was the senseless late hit out of bounds by UK that nullified a long Cobb kickoff return.
The Cats even managed to have an illegal procedure penalty from punt formation.
Said Phillips: "We had way too many bad plays in the kicking game."
Moving forward, one of Joker's biggest impediments in succeeding as Kentucky coach is there hasn't seemed to be much of a buy-in among the Kingdom of the Blue in the belief that he can take UK football to the proverbial next level.
In Phillips trying to change that perception, it's hard to come up with a scenario that could have been more counterproductive than what happened Saturday.
Kentucky lost to a Pitt team that has had not one, not two, but three head coaches since the bowl bids were extended.
Newton, who is presumably the heir apparent to the Kentucky quarterback job next season, was better in his first start of this season than he was during the eight starts he made last season as a true freshman, but he was nowhere near the level of a winning QB that Kentucky needs.
With Cobb weighing whether to return to Lexington for his senior season or enter the NFL Draft, you had to wonder if he saw anything that made him think the wise move would be to return. He certainly didn't get a game plan built around him.
When asked afterward if he had played his final game, Cobb's voice cracked with emotion. "I don't know," he said. "I'll have a decision in a week."
While Cobb spoke, Phillips sat next to him with a glassy stare. You wondered if he were envisioning his team without No. 18.
Said the UK coach: "We've got to try to take the next step, take this program to the next level."
Phillips still deserves time to do that, of course.
Even if his Back to the Future trip to Birmingham was about as far from moving in the right direction as one can get.
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