John Clay: Cats fought when they could have folded

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 29, 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 was a two-part play.

First half, promise.

Second half, reality.

First half Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky gave its fans what its coaches keep talking about, young, talented players showing promise for the future as the host Cats built a shocking 10-point lead on visiting South Carolina.

Second half, the Gamecocks showed why they are the sixth-ranked team in the nation, settling on a ground-and-pound strategy that drove Kentucky into the ground on the way to a 38-17 victory.

It was a night that began with starting quarterback Maxwell Smith leaving the game after UK's second offensive play. It ended with true freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow being sacked seven times and throwing two interceptions.

In between, however, in those first 30 minutes, there was the sweet joy of the unexpected.

A three-touchdown underdog, UK got impressive runs and throws from Whitlow, hard runs full of second effort from Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, terrific blocking from the offensive line and a blocked punt from true freshman Daron Baylock.

"We had a lot of young guys making plays," said Joker Phillips after the game.

The Cats also owned a shocking 17-7 lead and a great chance for more, but botched a clock situation at the end of the half. On third-and-goal from the South Carolina 10-yard line, with no timeouts left, Whitlow took a look in the pocket, then tried to scramble, fumbled and by the time it was recovered by UK's Demarco Robinson there was no time left to spike or get the field goal unit on the field.

"That was a huge momentum swing," said Phillips afterward.

It was also a true freshman mistake. Whitlow should have looked, then thrown the ball away to preserve at least the chance of a field goal. That's youth. A learning experience.

"You have to play clean and not make mistakes for 60 minutes," Phillips said. "We did that for 35 minutes."

The second half was a reality check. Someone must have reminded Steve Spurrier in the South Carolina locker room that Kentucky was 97th nationally against the run.

Marcus Lattimore became South Carolina's battering ram in the second half, chewing up yardage. The Gamecocks made smart defensive adjustments, UK's offense stalled and that gave Spurrier more opportunities to hand the ball off. One touchdown, then another, then another.

"We can talk about Georgia next week," said Spurrier afterward about the unbeaten Gamecocks' SEC East showdown. "I want to talk about beating Kentucky. It wasn't as easy as some thought it would be."

Give Kentucky's "young puppies" as offensive coordinator Randy Sanders called them, credit for that.

At one point, Whitlow, a true freshman, fired a perfect strike to A.J. Legree, a true freshman, on a pattern.

"That was as good as I've seen," Phillips said afterward.

And for those who say that the team has quit on its embattled coach, there was plenty to dispute that ill-gotten notion. Even with Smith going down on the home team's first possession, the Cats didn't fold, they fought.

"I thought our young guys really competed and battled," said Randy Sanders.

That wasn't enough, of course. South Carolina is a smart, veteran team. The Gamecocks knew that with Whitlow under center, the UK playbook was limited. Once the visitors got the lead, they took advantage with added aggressiveness.

If Smith's injured ankle is serious enough to keep him out for awhile, the trick now is for UK to expand that playbook. There are tweaks to be done to take advantage of Whitlow's obvious strengths.

"There will probably be more quarterback runs," Phillips said.

"We'll have to tweak a lot of things," said Sanders.

For this particular Kentucky football team, you knew it would come down to exactly that. Tweaking. Developing. There is some good, young talent at hand. The first half proved that. It's just a question of how fast it can develop.

So, yes, as far as Saturday's second half went, reality bites. So focus on the first-half promise.

It's UK's job to build on it.

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

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