NASHVILLE — Long after the game was over, Joker Phillips, his head down and all alone, walked the length of the Vanderbilt Stadium playing field toward the UK team buses.
A game in which the Kentucky football coach's mere presence made him part of Southeastern Conference history ended as a day he surely would love to forget.
UK came to Music City for an S.O.S — a chance to Save Our Season. Even with the ugly struggles earlier in 2011, a win Saturday in Nashville and the Cats' hopes for a sixth straight bowl game would have been eminently viable.
Instead, Kentucky got smoked.
The final score: Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 8.
The telling stat: The Commodores converted 10 of 18 third downs; the Cats were 0-for-12.
The historic narrative: In the first SEC intra-conference game ever contested between two teams with black head coaches, it was Vanderbilt first-year head man James Franklin who left a winner.
Phillips left looking for answers.
"We all created what you just saw out there," Phillips said, "coaches, players, every one of us. Offensively, defensively, special teams. Every man in (the UK locker room) created this, including myself."
With a highly restive UK fan base, many of whom have already bailed on Phillips, this was the polar opposite of what the coach needed.
Vandy's margin of victory Saturday was its largest in an SEC game since a 49-19 win over Mississippi State in 1971. It was the most lopsided victory for the SEC's traditional doormat over UK since a 42-6 pasting of the Cats in 1969.
Saturday's victory put Vandy (5-5, 2-5 SEC) within one win of bowl eligibility. UK (4-6, 1-5 SEC) now must beat Georgia on the road and Tennessee at home to earn a bowl bid.
Vandy's beat-down of the Cats wasn't as close as the 38-8 score.
Kentucky disappointments were everywhere.
In a crucial game, UK appeared to play flat in the first half. How in the name of Knute Rockne motivational talks can that happen?
"That's a great question," UK true freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "That's something we all wish we could find answers to right now. I don't have those answers."
Smith, who had injected hope into the Cats' season with two strong performances against Mississippi State and Mississippi, looked like a freshman making his first road start Saturday. The California product missed open receivers with errant throws. He had miscommunications with wide-outs. He took four sacks.
As UK fell behind 24-0 by halftime, Smith was 4-for-11 passing for 22 yards. He played better in the second half (finishing 15-for-31 for 179 yards with no picks and a touchdown toss) but the outcome was decided early.
"I was just missing throws I've got to make," Smith said. "In a game we had to win, it was inexcusable."
Playing without injured defensive front starters Donte Rumph and Ridge Wilson, the Kentucky defense was physically punished.
In a play that symbolized Vanderbilt's muscular dominance (it ran for 203 yards), star tailback Zac Stacy scored on an 18-yard touchdown in the fourth period in which the 5-foot-9, 208-pound junior carried eight UK defenders — literally — the final 6 yards of the run.
"It was ugly. Embarrassing. Ugly," Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter said of the play. "I felt bad for our guys. But, fact is, they whipped our tails today."
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of a dismal Saturday was how undisciplined the Cats played. UK had been called for only 36 penalties all year before Vandy. Against the Commodores, the Cats had 10 for 105 yards. At one point, cornerback Randall Burden was called for pass interference on back-to-back plays. UK committed three personal fouls.
The hard truth is that in what may have been the most important game of the season, Kentucky did not play like a well-coached football team.
I continue to think those calling for Phillips' job in only his second year are being unfair. Two seasons is not enough time to render a final judgment on any head coach (minus some type of off-the-field issues).
Yet efforts like UK delivered Saturday are only going to raise the heat beneath Joker's seat.
Asked how his team could have played so poorly with so much at stake Saturday, Phillips shook his head.
"It's hard to explain," he said.
For Joker Phillips, a day in which he was part of history ended with a long, lonely walk.
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or firstname.lastname@example.org.