John Clay: A day of all the wrong moves for Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 27, 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)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Joker Phillips needed to have a good day.

Joker Phillips had a bad day.

This isn't to say on a sunny but chilly Saturday at Missouri's Faurot Field, the Kentucky coach was the reason his young Wildcats dropped to 1-8 overall and 0-6 in the league as host Missouri recorded its first Southeastern Conference win by a 33-10 count.

It is to say that against a Tigers team that again proved itself to be no great shakes, all Kentucky needed was a good decision or a smart choice to stop its now seven-game slide.

Unfortunately, nearly every one turned out wrong.

Jalen Whitlow started at quarterback. First possession, Kentucky drove from its own 25 to the Missouri 20 before losing a fumble. Bad result, but good drive. Second possession, Whitlow orchestrated a 50-yard touchdown march.

Pre-game, Phillips had determined that quarterback Patrick Towles would get the team's third and fourth series. Do you stick with the plan? Or, considering Whitlow's early success, do you stick with the hot hand?

Phillips stuck with the plan. In came Towles, his first appearance in three weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain. The Cats went three-and-out. Next series, in came Towles again. The Cats went three-and-out again. Momentum gone.

"They started stacking the box a little bit more and stopping the run," Phillips said. "We just couldn't throw the football."

"Patrick had had a pretty good week of practice. ... If I had it do over again maybe I would haven't done that, but there's no way of knowing it at that time," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

Late second quarter, UK faced a fourth-and-9 at the Missouri 36-yard line. Score tied 10-10. Do you punt and try to pin Missouri deep? Or do you go for the points, asking McIntosh to make a field goal 4 yards beyond his career long?

"I wanted to give our guy a chance," Phillips said. "It was very makeable, with the wind."

We'll never know. Holder Jared Leet mishandled the snap. Missouri took over at its own 48. Eleven plays produced a Tigers touchdown and a 17-10 Mizzou lead.

Third quarter, 17-10 home team, UK's Landon Foster boomed a 55-yard punt to the Missouri 30, where Marcus Murphy returned it 6 yards to the 36. Only Missouri was called for running into the kicker, turning a fourth-and-7 into a fourth-and-2 at the UK 20.

Do you decline the penalty and take a net punt of 49 yards? Or do you re-kick in hopes that having already muffed two punts, Missouri might do that again?

"The guy had put the ball on the ground a couple of times," Phillips said. "We've got a good pretty good punter. We wanted to take a chance again."

Foster's second punt went just 39 yards and was returned 12 to the UK 47, a gain of 17 yards with the re-kick. The Tigers' offense moved close enough to kick a 34-yard field goal for a 20-10 lead.

Fourth quarter, Missouri up 26-10. It's pretty much a lost cause. Still, there was a short pass from Whitlow to Raymond Sanders that turned into a called fumble. Missouri's E.J. Gaines scooped it up and carried 13 yards for a touchdown with 8:09 left.

Live, the fumble ruling looked debatable at best. You thought Phillips would challenge the call, or at least call a timeout to give the replay official more time to take a few more looks. He did neither.

"They had plenty of time to see it," Phillips said. "When I saw it, it's a fumble. I'm not going to challenge a play that looks like a fumble to me."

At that time, however, what would it have hurt to challenge?

Second-guessing? Of course. Nit-picking? Maybe. But when you're a young team playing with a small margin for error, every decision is magnified, every wrong move criticized.

One notion appeared more than hindsight, however. It was easy to see in the clear Missouri sunshine that with a few right moves UK could have taken advantage of a golden opportunity.

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

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