Mark Story: Kentucky victory brings relief, but will it build belief?

Victory brings relief but will it build belief?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 23, 2011 

You might say Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium was the "Relief Bowl."

Kentucky was coming off four straight defeats, the last three by brutal margins. It was playing an Ohio Valley Conference team and doing so in an unusually empty stadium.

It all put UK in the proverbial catch-22 situation.

Beating Jacksonville State of the Football Championship Subdivision may not do much to silence the braying in a dissatisfied fan base. Losing to JSU, however, would have meant a full-scale nuclear meltdown.

So on "Empty-Seat Day" in Commonwealth, UK didn't lose. On a sunny Saturday before an announced crowd of 54,098, the Wildcats put a 38-14 whipping on the same JSU program that upset Mississippi last season in Oxford.

"This helps, it definitely helps," Joker Phillips said afterward. "We're trying to play this as 'the second season.' We went 2-4 in the 'first season.' Now, we're 1-0 in the second."

UK's victory came from the exact things — strong offensive line play, a potent running attack, some big plays from wide receiver La'Rod King and a turnover-forcing defense — that were expected to carry Kentucky in 2011.

Against a big drop in class from the likes of Florida, LSU and South Carolina, all those elements finally clicked Saturday.

The veteran UK offensive line, ravaged by injuries early in the season, controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed the Cats to roll up a staggering 340 yards on the ground.

"They wanted to be the bullies on the block," Jacksonville State Coach Jack Crowe said of UK, "and they bullied us."

With true freshman standout tailback Josh Clemons already lost for the season with a knee injury, Kentucky starter Raymond Sanders was knocked out of the game Saturday with a right ankle problem.

All third-stringer CoShik Williams, a junior walk-on from Trevard Lindley's hometown of Hiram, Ga., did was run for 148 yards.

"It was crazy," Kentucky wide receiver La'Rod King said of Williams' effort. "That guy's a diamond in the rough."

The 5-foot-9, 178-pound Williams appeared to hit holes quicker than any Kentucky running back has all season. Perhaps most notably, there were holes to be hit. That hadn't been the case early in the season even against non-SEC foes such as Western Kentucky and Central Michigan.

"I don't know that we have, really, the skill setup there to be a dominant SEC offensive line," UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "But we do have the ability to be a really consistent, really functional line. With all the injuries we had up there early, we couldn't be consistent or functional."

UK threw the ball only 16 times, but King made the most of those opportunities.

The 6-foot-4, 194-pound North Hardin product (five catches, 84 yards) twice leaped over smaller Jacksonville State defenders to snare touchdown catches. In a season filled with dropped passes, it had to feel nice to UK quarterback Morgan Newton to see a wide-out make plays for him.

"No," Newton said. "It felt awesome."

Remember all the talk in the pre-season about how new defensive coordinator Rick Minter's attacking schemes would lead to turnovers and help Kentucky put points on the board?

Blitzing safety Martavius Neloms got UK on the scoreboard first himself, sacking JSU QB Coty Blanchard, stripping the ball, then scooping and scoring from 40 yards out. Later, interceptions from Danny Trevathan and Luke McDermott set up Kentucky touchdowns.

TDs are "what generally happens," Minter said, "when you give your offense a short field."

The only place Kentucky came up short Saturday was in the stands. The announced attendance of 54,098 was a tickets-sold count, Kentucky football publicist Tony Neely said.

Commonwealth's lower bowl was fairly full. There were vast expanses of empty seats in the upper decks. That's what happens when a team has been outscored 137-20 in its three prior games.

"Obviously, our fans are doubting us a little bit or they would have shown up," Minter said. "... It's just human nature. Fans want good teams. We haven't been a good team in a month. Hopefully, the fans will see enough of the highlights tonight that they'll say, 'Hey, we'll give them another shot next week and come back.' "

We'll see.

Beating Jacksonville State may not excite many Cats backers; losing to the OVC leaders would have been a sports-context disaster.

The Relief Bowl.

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