John Clay: Loss to WKU suggests more long days ahead

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 15, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

It's going to be a long, hard slog now.

The head football coach has officially gone from the hot seat to blistering.

The program has gone from five straight bowl appearances to now third-best in a state with only three Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

To be sure, Western Kentucky has made tremendous strides in its brief history as a higher-division member of college football, climbing from a winless team just three short years ago to beating a host BCS team in a dramatic and stunning overtime on Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium.

Final: Western Kentucky 32, Kentucky 31.

And WKU Coach Willie Taggart deserved the victory, calling a gutsy throwback pass for a two-point conversion in overtime — running back Antonio Andrews catching a lateral, then throwing back to quarterback Kawaun Jakes, who made a shoestring catch before waltzing into the end zone — for the game-winner.

And yet, no disrespect to the Hilltoppers, but if Kentucky cannot beat a fledgling Sun Belt Conference team on its own turf, how is it going to beat any of the eight Southeastern Conference teams it will play this year?

If only 53,000-plus showed up to watch the battle between two state schools on Saturday night, after just 48,000 bothered to show up for the home opener the week before, what will the attendance be when the team returns home from Gainesville after next week's game with the Gators?

"Western was a physical team," said UK Coach Joker Phillips. "I thought we matched them."

An SEC program shouldn't be matching a Sun Belt program.

Turnovers were the real Cat killer. Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith had not thrown an interception through the first two games of the season. The sophomore threw four Saturday night.

In the first half, Western turned two of those picks into 10 points on the way to a 17-0 lead.

"We can't turn the ball over," Phillips said. "We can't do it."

What the Kentucky defense can't seem to be able to do is stop the run.

Time and again, the Hilltoppers simply lined up and ran the football when it needed to run the football.

Taggart is a Jim Harbaugh disciple, an assistant on Harbaugh's staff at Stanford.

He's learned smashmouth well.

Example: Start of the second half. UK had closed the gap to 17-10 as Craig McIntosh drilled a 47-yard field goal on the final snap before halftime.

Western got the ball to start the second half. And the Hilltoppers kept the football, driving 75 yards in 12 plays, nine of those running plays, to extend the advantage back to two touchdowns.

Give Kentucky full credit for fighting back. A bruised (shoulder) and battered Smith shook off his miscues to drive the Cats down the field 77 yards in the final two minutes to send the game into overtime.

There, however, Western won it with that fabulous trick play, propelling the triumphant Toppers sprinting across the field to celebrate their first win over a mighty SEC team in 17 tries.

The trick now for Kentucky and Phillips is to find a way to turn what very much appears to be a long, dark tunnel into something that presents a hopeful ray of light.

That won't be easy.

In 2008, Kentucky beat Western Kentucky 41-3. In 2010, the Cats beat the Hilltoppers 63-28. Last year, in Nashville, UK struggled mightily but still beat WKU 14-3.

In a span of five years, Kentucky has gone from 38-point victors over WKU to losing to the Toppers on UK's home field.

During the post-game news conference, Phillips was asked what he would say to fans who see this as more proof the program is headed in the wrong direction.

"We're playing a lot of young kids," Phillips said. "And we're going to continue to play them."

There's nowhere to go but up.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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