Mark Story: Finding a small victory in another Kentucky defeat

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 21, 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)

In a Kentucky football season all but devoid of actual victories, you have to dig to find some "wins."

So on Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium, a UK team that came into the season expecting to be a pass-happy, no-huddle offense stayed in the game with the No. 13 team in the country thanks to some old-fashioned, smash-mouth football.

Behind the hard-nosed running of junior backs Jonathan George (87 yards) and Raymond Sanders (72) and some inspired play from the UK offensive line, Kentucky rolled up 206 rushing yards against one of the largest defensive lines in college football.

Alas, that was not enough to produce an actual victory. Make it Georgia 29, Kentucky 24.

Make the Bulldogs 6-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC heading into next week's season-defining showdown with Florida.

Meanwhile, Kentucky (1-7, 0-5) is now assured of its third losing season in Joker Phillips' first three seasons as UK head coach.

Still, to a degree that likely surprised every member of a season-high crowd of 54,553 in Commonwealth, the Cats — coming off an embarrassing 49-7 drubbing at Arkansas — fought Georgia tooth and nail.

The prime reason was the Kentucky running game, especially George and Sanders. The duo combined to spark UK to its most effective offensive performance since starting quarterback Maxwell Smith was lost to injury on the second play of the South Carolina game.

"After the last few weeks when we hadn't been able to run the ball, it was really satisfying to run it that efficiently on a defense as big as those guys," Kentucky center Matt Smith said of Georgia, whose nose guards are 358-pound John Jenkins and 355-pound Kwame Geathers. "They are not easy guys to move. We definitely take pride in being able to move those guys."

A third-stringer when the season began, George rolled up his career-high 87 yards against Georgia on 12 attempts, a robust average of 7.2 yards a carry.

As Kentucky finally ended an embarrassing streak of 20 straight games without an offensive touchdown in the first quarter by scoring on its initial drive of the game, the 5-foot-10, 223-pound product of Lincoln, Ala., all but single-handedly got the Cats off the schneid.

On UK's first drive, George ripped off runs of 11 yards, then 8 on Kentucky's first two plays from scrimmage. Later, on a third-and-7, George rumbled for 21 yards. That was the key play that eventually allowed Morgan Newton to hit Aaron Boyd for the long-missing rarity: A Kentucky first-quarter touchdown.

George accumulated 56 of his total rushing yards in the first period.

"We had a game plan this week and that was to come out and try to be aggressive in the run game," George said. "All the running backs came out with the mind-set we were going to be real aggressive running the ball."

UK's Phillips said George is a testament to what can happen for a player who waits his turn, then seizes an opportunity. "That's why I'm so proud of him," Phillips said.

Instead of his normal No. 4 jersey, Sanders, the 5-8, 190-pound bowling ball of a back from Stone Mountain, Ga., was wearing the No. 26 jersey of the injured CoShik Williams. A walk-on who worked his way to becoming Kentucky's No. 1 running back this season as a senior, Williams is out for the year with a hip injury.

"I think he'll be pretty satisfied with how I ran the ball tonight," Sanders said of Williams. "... I was just trying to represent his number well and show him I love him like a brother."

Sanders' best moment came on Kentucky's second TD drive. On a third-and-13, he took a delayed draw and rambled for 13 yards to the Georgia 48. That helped set up what became a 2-yard Newton touchdown run in the second period.

In quarter four, Sanders found the end zone himself on a 3-yard run that cut a 29-17 Georgia lead to 29-24 with 3:59 left. A UK onside kick try failed and Georgia ran off all but the final nine seconds of the game.

As for the big picture, Phillips made a point of telling the media that UK's performance against Georgia showed that his team has not packed it in on the embattled coach.

That's true.

But it's also true that a closely contested loss is still a loss. After winning his first three games as Kentucky head man in 2010, Phillips has now lost 21 of his last 30.

Still, in a season with only one actual victory, Kentucky can at least say it accumulated its season high in rushing against the nation's No. 12 team.

Well, it's something.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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