UK's road ahead looks tougher, but Cats say bowl game is still the goal

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 16, 2012 

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat (83) tried to hold back tears as he left the field as Western Kentucky University defeated Kentucky 32-31 on Saturday September 15, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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For a night anyway, Kentucky was just going to let the overtime loss to Western Kentucky go.

"Tonight you don't say a whole lot," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said after the 32-31 defeat. "You tell them you're proud of the effort; you're proud of the way they competed; you're proud of the way they battled."

But in the harsh light of Sunday morning and the sometimes cruel walks to class on Monday, Sanders knows it will be difficult to insulate the Kentucky players from the criticisms.

People will talk about how UK fell in a 17-point hole against the Hilltoppers, who just joined the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks full time in 2009. People will talk about how the Toppers had just two wins in 2010 and how they started last season 0-4.

People will talk about how Western had never beaten a Southeastern Conference school in 16 previous tries, how it got its first win over a BCS school in 21 attempts on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

Fifth-year seniors like Taylor Wyndham have heard negative talk before and was asked what advice he will give UK's relatively young group.

"We need to remember it's a long season," Wyndham said. "It's disappointing to be 1-2 right now, but you still have nine more opportunities to go."

Senior Aaron Boyd agreed.

"We kept fighting," Boyd said. "We didn't give up and we came back. They made one more play than we did. We got to keep moving on; we've got a game to play next week."

But the road ahead is more treacherous than the one behind UK, the road that left them 1-2 to start this season.

Four of Kentucky's next five opponents are all ranked, all an unbeaten 3-0 in No. 14 Florida, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 5 Georgia. The one unranked and beaten opponent is a tough trip to Arkansas.

"The road definitely doesn't get any easier," sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith said in his matter of fact way.

The last time a Kentucky team was beaten by a team outside of the BCS was a 28-16 loss to Ohio University in 2004.

That UK team, in its second season under Rich Brooks, finished 2-9, with the last win coming over Vanderbilt that season, 14-13.

The players and coaches are hopeful that this team won't suffer the same fate.

The fact that UK kept fighting, even when it looked like the game was over against Western Kentucky on Saturday, is a positive sign.

"They had an opportunity to hang their heads today," head coach Joker Phillips said when asked why he thinks this team still has some wins left in it. "They had an opportunity down in the first half and even late in the second half."

The Kentucky head coach said he doesn't like talk he's heard about his team being soft.

"This team is not soft by any means," he said. "We've got some tough individuals in that locker room."

When asked what that locker room was like after the loss, which happened in overtime on a trick play, two-point conversion, Smith shook his head.

"It wasn't good, as you can imagine," he said.

But he shrugged his bruised shoulder with the ice pack still attached.

"We'll be all right," he said. "We have to keep our chins up and keep fighting."

That's all the team can do, Sanders said.

Quitting early in the game when UK was struggling or late in the game when it seemed that the Cats would never be able to tie the game and send it to overtime, wasn't an option.

"We've still got nine games to play," Sanders said. "I've been here for five bowl games. I want to be here for six. That's still our goal: to get ourselves in the position to get to a bowl game. We've still got nine games left to get it done."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241.Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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