UK football notebook: Cats had Phillips' back

Players felt pressure on coach before Tennessee win

JSmith3@herald-leader.comDecember 11, 2011 

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips was all smiles after the Wildcats ended a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee on Nov. 26. There were rumors about Phillips' job security before the game.

AMY WALLOT — Amy Wallot

When seasons end and seniors get their last go-around with the media, they tend to be a little more free with what they say and how they say it. Lips tend to get a little looser.

But after Kentucky's historic 10-7 win over Tennessee, UK's players were clear: Despite the 5-7 finish and no bowl game for the first time in five seasons, they believe Joker Phillips is a good coach and that they are leaving the program in good hands.

"He's a great coach," senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "We just had some young players in key positions."

Sneed offered up this message to the fans: "Just continue to give us support and everything will go great."

The linebacker and his teammates said they were well aware of the rising temperature of Phillips' seat after each loss. But they said he never mentioned his job status.

They said they wanted to get the win for Phillips as much as they did for the long-suffering UK fans who had lived through 26 straight seasons of defeat to the Volunteers.

"We just really wanted to get this, especially for him," senior Danny Trevathan said. "It's been a long season for him and a lot of people are against him, but we're behind him. We love him. He's going to be my coach until the day I die."

When teams quit on their coach, there's usually a letdown at the end of the season, several players noted. But this UK team seemed to play its most focused football the last two games of the season at Georgia and against Tennessee.

"We played for ourselves and ourselves is him," senior punter Ryan Tydlacka said of his head coach. "He's one of us. We win, he wins. We lose, he loses. We're in this together."

That was the general message in the locker room before the game: to win the game for each other, Sneed said.

"I felt like I was playing for him, like I was playing for the fans that might have felt a little letdown from the season," he said. "Really we were all just playing for each other."

Takeaway tales

As Rick Minter understood it, Joker Phillips brought him in as defensive coordinator at this time last year so he could shore up the defense and turn it into a turnover machine.

"Coach Phillips has us on the field for one reason: get the ball," Minter said earlier this season. "We want to be a takeaway team first."

The Cats accomplished that, forcing opponents to cough it up 25 times, including getting 15 picks and 10 fumble recoveries.

UK had at least one takeaway in its final seven games of the season, including three key ones against the Volunteers in the season finale.

The Cats had nearly as many interceptions this season (15) as they had takeaways all of last season (16).

But takeaways aren't enough, Minter said.

He sees plenty of room for improvement.

"You can say we had our moments this season — both good and bad — but we're not as consistent as we want to be if we want to be one of the elite groups," he said.

Of its top 20 tacklers, UK returns 13 next season. But the Cats do lose three of their top four in Danny Trevathan (143 tackles), Winston Guy (120) and Ronnie Sneed (71). Junior safety Martavius Neloms also had 71 tackles.

Shoulder repairs went well

Juniors Morgan Newton and Ridge Wilson underwent shoulder surgery on their torn labrums the Tuesday after the season ended and both the quarterback and the linebacker are expected to make full recoveries, but will be sidelined 4-6 months, football spokesman Tony Neely said.

The healing process likely will mean limited action in spring practice for the juniors. Wilson was the Cats' sixth-leading tackler with 47. The Louisville Central product had three tackles for a loss, two sacks and a recovered fumble this season.

Newton finished the season 83-for-174 with eight touchdowns and seven picks. The Carmel, Ind., native passed for 793 yards and ran for 272 more (with two rushing scores).

By all accounts, Newton held off on his shoulder surgery until the end of the season in case something happened to freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith and Newton was needed to take snaps and hand off.

'A little skeptical at first'

The Cat company line from Phillips after the Tennessee win was that everyone had complete faith in wide receiver Matt Roark's ability to play quarterback and lead the team to victory.

When the players were told the Sunday before the UT game that Roark might get some snaps at quarterback, a position he hadn't played since his senior year of high school at North Cobb (Ga.), there were some raised eyebrows, reported one UK player.

"All of us were a little skeptical at first because we didn't know what he remembered from high school," said Matt Smith, who was under center feeding Roark in the shotgun the entire game.

But Roark was calm and composed at practice all week, Smith said. It gave everyone a little more faith.

"By the time it came to Thursday and Friday, we had enough confidence in (Roark) that we were talking about this being something special, something Tennessee wouldn't be expecting," Smith said.

As quarterback Roark had 139 yards of total offense, that's only 19 fewer yards than he put up at wide receiver the entire season before. Last season Roark rushed one time for negative-12 yards, so few probably saw his 124 rushing yards against Tennessee coming.

In his first two seasons, Roark managed just 65 total yards of offense.

You don't say ...

There is only so much time to write a story and only so much space in the paper, so there was plenty of stuff left out after Kentucky's 10-7 win over Tennessee to end the season.

After the win busted the streak, the UK participants were in rare form.

Here are a few snippets:

Lexington native Winston Guy, who had 14 tackles for UK in the win, on being the team that broke the streak: "It's like a tattoo, once you get it and it's there. We won and no one can take it away from us."

Defensive coordinator Rick Minter called the rivalry with Tennessee "a curse game."

But he seemed pleased that the curse was lifted.

It's "a game that's been an albatross around our neck for a long time," he said. "We got that rid of."

Speaking of sea birds, Kentucky still owns the nation's longest active losing streak to a major conference opponent. It's now 24 straight versus Florida.

Jennifer Smith covers UK football for the Herald-Leader. This article contains her opinions and observations. Reach her at jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Read her blog at Kentucky.com and follow her on Twitter @jenheraldleader.

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