John Clay: Will freshman QBs bring fans back to Commonwealth?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 3, 2012 

Freshman QB Patrick Towles threw a pass during drills at UK's fan day in August. Towles, who was Kentucky's Mr. Football at Highlands last season, will see his first collegiate game action on Saturday against Mississippi State.

MATT GOINS — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

If college football in the SEC is a religion, Kentucky is no longer playing to crowded pews.

The first three home games of this 2012 season have reflected the well-documented plunge in season ticket sales. Two of the three have drawn the two smallest crowds since Commonwealth Stadium was expanded in 1999.

With television dictating a 12:21 p.m. start for Kentucky-Mississippi State on Saturday, butting heads with Keeneland's first fall weekend, fear was the 1-4 Cats would perform in a nearly vacant lot.

Not so fast.

Everyone likes to see something new, correct? Something you just don't see every day?

It isn't every Saturday, that you see two true freshman quarterbacks playing for an SEC team against another SEC team that is undefeated and ranked 20th in the nation.

In addition to the question of how UK's Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles will do as extremely green signal callers is whether the novelty might bring disgruntled UK football fans back to their seats.

So far, they've stayed away in droves. The home opener against Kent State drew 48,346, the smallest crowd in expanded Commonwealth Stadium history. Last week's game against South Carolina drew but 49,810.

To be fair, the university's decision to ban alcohol from the area many students used for tailgating didn't help turnout. Still, it was sixth-ranked South Carolina, coached by the evil genius Steve Spurrier.

Even the Kentucky-Western Kentucky game on Sept. 15 drew just 53,980, a drop of almost 13,000 from the 66,584 that witnessed the two teams play in Lexington in 2010.

That 2010 WKU game was Joker Phillips' second as head coach. He is in his third season now. Phillips has lost twice in a row to Louisville. He's lost to Western Kentucky. His SEC record is 4-14.

Those numbers won't earn a coach a pink slip as fast as these: In a stadium that has packed crowds in excess of 70,000, Kentucky's last seven home games have all failed to touch the 60,000 mark.

It's to the point now where the attendance total is no longer announced in the press box. It's by request only.

The question now is what kind of effect will mystery quarterbacks have on the turnstiles. Whitlow played 65 snaps last week after starter Maxwell Smith suffered torn ligaments on the home team's second offensive snap. Towles has taken in excess of 65 snaps, but all of them in practice — with the scout team. The differences don't end there.

Towles was a heralded four-star recruit out of state power Fort Thomas Highlands. If trumpets greeted his arrival, Whitlow arrived on campus with barely a sound. The Alabama "athlete" signed with the Cats because UK promised him a crack at quarterback. He responded by besting Towles in an abbreviated camp competition.

Thrust into the spotlight last Saturday, Whitlow led the heavy underdogs to a 17-7 lead. Alas, South Carolina awoke in the second half and rolled to a 38-17 win.

But for the first 30 minutes the Commonwealth crowd made up for its low numbers with a large amount of noise. Not that we should have been surprised. Rupp Arena often proves that a big crowd does not guarantee a loud crowd.

Then came Phillips' announcement Monday that, with Smith likely done for the season thanks to a torn ligament in his ankle, the redshirt was coming off Towles. That adds a layer of interest that frankly didn't exist previously.

Will a fresh face translate into an occupy (the seats) movement Saturday? Tough question. Those open betting windows at Keeneland provide strong competition. The football game is being televised live. And the weatherman says the high temperature Saturday could be a chilly 50 degrees.

On the other hand, if curiosity draws crowds, who knows, maybe some old friends will find their way back to the faithful.

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

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