Mark Story: Well, at least it was a Kentucky win

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 2, 2011 

NASHVILLE — There is one thing worse than being one-half of one of the least entertaining major-college football games ever.

Losing it.

In a night when its offense was strikingly ineffective for most of the game, Kentucky at least avoided that.

Before an announced crowd of 24,599 in an LP Field built to hold far more, UK averted a massive embarrassment in its 2011 season opener and defeated plucky Western Kentucky 14-3 Thursday night.

After a disappointing loss to end last year's regular season at Tennessee and a dispiriting effort in falling to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, UK football — and Coach Joker Phillips — could have really used a jolt of feel-good from the first game of this season.

So much for that.

With Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline and Co. gone from the UK offense that hung 63 on Western a season ago, Kentucky came into this season looking for offensive answers.

There were scant few to be found Thursday night.

At his Monday news conference, Phillips said UK junior quarterback Morgan Newton had looked so good at times in pre-season practice, he was unrecognizable from the guy who played so-so in the bowl loss to Pitt.

Unfortunately, Newton looked pretty familiar Thursday night. The Carmel, Ind., product finished 7-for-18 for 97 yards with three interceptions.

To his credit, Newton ripped off a 58-yard run on a scramble in the fourth period that was probably the deciding play of the game. He followed that up by hitting La'Rod King with a 31-yard TD pass that clinched victory.

Nevertheless, just as it has in most of Newton's nine prior starts at UK, the offense (a paltry 190 total yards) looked disjointed with him under center. In his 10 career starts, he has thrown for 200 yards in a game only once (211 against Pitt) and has thrown for fewer than 100 yards six times.

Yet, in fairness to Newton, he got almost no help in the Music City.

In the first half alone, Kentucky wide receivers dropped not one, not two, not three but four passes. Two of those, one each by King and Matt Roark, came on well-thrown bombs that, if caught, could have dramatically changed the course of the first half.

Meanwhile, the veteran UK offensive line that was supposed to be the bedrock of the Kentucky offense was more like a sieve. The line couldn't open holes for a running game. Kentucky finished the first half with a puny 7 yards and, even with Newton's 58-yard jaunt, had only 78 for the entire game.

At one point, the ESPNU microphones picked up WKU linebacker Andrew Jackson saying "I thought these were SEC boys."

Kentucky didn't look anything like 'SEC boys' Thursday night.

"We had a chance, we had a great chance," Western Coach Willie Taggart said. "We just didn't take advantage of it."

If there were bright spots, defensive co-coordinator Rick Minter's troops allowed Kentucky to avert disaster.

Often employing a 3-4 front, the UK 'D' picked off four Kawaun Jakes passes. The first one, by Winston Guy, set up the first Kentucky TD (a 14-yard run by true freshman Josh Clemons) and kept WKU out of the end zone the entire night. The Cats could not hold Western star running back Bobby Rainey under 100 yards (105), but they did keep Rainey from breaking a game-changing big play.

UK was fortunate, however, that Jakes (a 51 percent passer in 2010) is not especially effective through the air. The WKU QB missed a wide-open Jack Doyle for what would have been a first-half touchdown and completed only nine of 27 passes for the game.

Against a more potent passer, the outcome might well have been different.

Kentucky punter Ryan Tydlacka (seven punts, 47.1 yard average) was brilliant. Of course, when your punter is one of your stars, that's usually a mixed blessing at best.

So what did we learn in the Music City?

Playing a neutral-site college football game very late (9:15 p.m. Eastern kickoff) on a school night is a very bad idea. The UK defense under Minter looks more aggressive and quick, which is how it was billed.

On the other side of the ball, if Kentucky doesn't get a whole lot better quickly, well, Cat fans may not need to worry about the expense of a sixth straight bowl trip.

But it's a long season. Teams do get better.

As bad as Kentucky looked Thursday night in Nashville, losing would have made it a whole lot worse.

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