John Clay: Kentucky football just can't catch a break

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 6, 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)

You can lament the fact that four plays after his initial series, which was a scintillating and scoring series, Patrick Towles suffered an ankle injury and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines in an orthopedic boot, which is certainly lamentable.

You can lament the fact that this was the second straight Saturday a Kentucky quarterback was fitted for protective footwear before the game was over and the ridiculous run of bad luck that represents.

The play that got me in Kentucky's 27-14 loss to 20th-ranked Mississippi State on Saturday had nothing to do with injury, but much to do with luck as a metaphor for the season.

And maybe for Kentucky football, in general.

It was the first play of the fourth quarter. The Cats trailed by 13. That's a tough row to hoe, but not a hopeless row. In fact, true freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow had just hit wide receiver Demarco Robinson for a first down at the UK 35 when he went right back to the sophomore on another pass play.

Robinson got his hands on the ball for the catch, was rocked by a Mississippi State defender and went flat on his back as the ball flew up in the air. Thanks to the laws of gravity, the ball came right back down to the prone Robinson, who grabbed the football a second time and cradled it to his body.

It was a terrific play, an athletic feat, a good gain, and a crowd-pleaser all at the same time for a team that seemed to be gaining a little momentum.

But as the legendary Cawood Ledford used to say, "Hold the phone, Ralph. We've got a flag on the field."

Sure enough, there was the main man in stripes signaling an offensive pass interference penalty against the home team. Instead of a first-down moving forward, Kentucky marched 15 yards back.

Of course.

This isn't to say that this 2012 edition of the Wildcats would have been a contending football team, or a bowl-bound football team, or even a good football team. It is to say that given the ill fortune endured, it is now a team that doesn't have much of a chance to be any kind of team.

The staff constructed a no-huddle, quick-strike offense around the talents of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, only to have him miss the Florida game with a bad shoulder, then suffer a (probable) season-ending ankle injury the second play of his first game back, last week against South Carolina.

The staff was counting on senior CoShik Williams to soften the blow of losing running back Josh Clemons in the pre-season to a second knee surgery. Wednesday, Phillips announced that Williams' career was over thanks to a torn labrum in his hip.

Saturday, the staff took the redshirt off Towles and the much-heralded quarterback out of Fort Thomas Highlands led the Cats on an 80-yard march in which he completed all five of his passes for 71 of those yards. Four plays later, Towles was spraining his ankle while trying to fight off a Mississippi State sack.

"That's football," said Phillips afterward, shaking his head.

That's snakebit football.

That's 2005 Kentucky football. As Phillips noted, the Cats haven't had the surgeries they had that 3-8 season, but they have had the same run of rotten luck.

My main memory from '05 was how emotional head coach Rich Brooks was when Keenan Burton, Marcus McClinton and Tommy Cook, the latter back for a sixth year of eligibility, suffered significant injuries in a win over Idaho State. It was as if all the frustration of trying to rebuild amid NCAA sanctions had reached Brooks' boiling point.

Turned out there were better days ahead. Kentucky reached its first bowl under Brooks the very next season. And though the Phillips bashers won't admit it, there are signs of life in the younger players that are taking the field, or in some cases having to take the field.

"It is a little frustrating because we thought we were going to be really, really good on offense," Phillips said. "We thought we could pull it all together and have a pretty good football team — it's still out there. It's still out there."

But for a team that already knew this might be a hard season, this has been more like the season of hard luck.

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

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