Kentucky football is back home, hopes fans come out for it

jclay@herald-leader.comOctober 22, 2011 

Jacksonville State's Washaun Ealey, left, who was at Georgia last year, will face Kentucky's Morgan Newton and the Wildcats Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.

After discovering the hard-knock truth that travel is not always broadening — especially when you have been broad-sided — Kentucky football returns to the loving arms of home sweet home on Saturday.

Question is: Will there be anyone waiting at the front door?

"I'm not worried about that," said UK Coach Joker Phillips on Thursday. "We've got good fans. The ones that will be there will be loud."

Oh, they've been loud all right, their high-pitch grievances resonating from border-to-border as Kentucky attempts to (a) silence its critics and (b) snap a four-game losing streak when it faces a dangerous Jacksonville State, ranked No. 8 in FCS, Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

The unhappiness is such that many fear there will be plenty of leg room once kickoff commences at high noon. Even the meteorologists are unlikely to move the attendance meter. Good weather may push fans toward Keeneland's betting windows. Bad weather may keep the faithful at home to watch the tackling on the tube.

Phillips hopes that isn't the case. Misery needs company.

"We need our students. We need our fans. We need everybody to get this thing headed in the right direction," said the Kentucky coach this week. "Our kids have heard a lot of negative stuff, which is fine. A lot of it is to be expected, the way we've played. We need everybody to be there early and help these kids, because they are kids.

"All the negative stuff, I can handle. I'm a grown man. I'm 48 years old and I can handle it. These kids can't handle it, they can't. They don't understand it."

Phillips did admit that, young or old, there is one universal truth.

"Winning cures all," said the coach, "and we understand that."

The Cats haven't won a football game since a 27-13 victory over Central Michigan on Sept. 10. They haven't been home since a 48-10 thumping by Florida back on Sept. 24. In the meantime, Phillips' club was whipped 35-7 at No. 1 LSU, then crushed in Columbia 54-3 by South Carolina.

Luckily, UK enjoyed a stay-cation last Saturday to deal with its mental health. More bad news arrived with the loss for the season of running back Josh Clemons with a knee injury.

Then came the Danny Sheridan faux pas when the USA Today oddsmaker "accidentally" posted a betting line that showed JSU as a nine-point favorite.

Still, there was some good news. Defensive end Collins Ukwu was cleared for action. Quarterback Morgan Newton received a chance to clear his head after completing just four of 21 passes last time out. And Phillips reminded his team that plenty of teams would be 0-3 in the conference right now, given the schedule.

"This is a new season, a new six-game season," Phillips said. "We didn't do very well in the first part of the season. We've got to play better in the second part."

That won't be easy. Jacksonville State is no pushover. These Gamecocks may not be quite as talented as the Gamecocks the Cats just faced, but they are 5-1, with a 4-0 mark in the OVC, and the self-confidence gained from a win over an SEC team, Ole Miss, last season.

"There's no question they've got some BCS players," said Phillips.

The coach is more concerned with his own players. The Kentucky offense ranks 118th nationally out of 120 BCS schools in average yards per game. The defense allowed an SEC-high 639 yards at South Carolina.

When asked if he wanted to show the public that he can get the team turned around over the last six weeks, the coach replied, "I'm not interested in showing the public anything," saying all he is interested in showing is improvement.

So, back home, is his team ready to play?

"I'm anxious to play," Phillips said. "We'll see if we're ready."

Reach John Clay at (85 Jack McKeon 9) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com.

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