Style points don't carry as much weight when you're holding your team together with wire and duct tape.
Operating without its top running back, starting quarterback, and top all-purpose threat, Kentucky was far from a well-oiled machine Saturday against Eastern Kentucky.
But thanks to a steady-enough running game, a decent short-to-medium passing game and a solid defensive effort, the Cats still had enough in the tank to take care of the Colonels 37-12 in front of 67,053 at Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks knew he'd go into the game without his top running back, Derrick Locke, who sat out with torn scar tissue in his surgically repaired left knee. And starting quarterback Mike Hartline missed his fourth game in a row with a knee injury.
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But Brooks got a surprise on game day when his top all-purpose threat, Randall Cobb, was struggling with a sprained thumb he suffered in practice Thursday. While Cobb was technically cleared to play, Brooks decided to hold him out. And senior cornerback Trevard Lindley sat out the second half after re-injuring the ankle that caused him to miss four games.
Tailbacks Alfonso Smith and Moncell Allen didn't break off any long runs in Locke's absence, but they did combine to carry 26 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Morgan Newton didn't hit many big plays downfield but was a solid 20-for-29 passing for 187 yards and the first two touchdown passes of his career. Receivers Chris Matthews and La'Rod King were open all day on underneath routes and both had career days: Matthews with seven catches for 56 yards and a score, and King with four receptions for 41 yards. The offense also didn't turn the ball over and had just three penalties for 20 yards.
The defense gave up 264 yards, but the only times Eastern got into the end zone came on a fake field goal in the second quarter and a garbage-time touchdown with 1:23 left.
"I thought it was a workmanlike effort, if you will," Brooks said. "I thought our guys really kind of took care of what they needed to take care of in this game."
"We just kind of grinded this one out," said senior defensive tackle Corey Peters.
"Everybody pulled together, the offense, the defense, the special teams," said UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips. "And we talked about the turnovers. You can't let a team like this stay in the game long. The longer they stay in the game, the more confident they get, and then you start pressing."
But Phillips admitted that the Cats (5-4) let the Colonels (5-4) hang around too long. Kentucky controlled the action early but had some initial trouble scoring, as Smith was stopped on a fourth-and-1 at the EKU 10 on UK's first drive. The Cats did cash in on their second possession when Allen scored from a yard out with 4:31 remaining in the opening quarter, and a Lones Seiber 22-yard field goal midway through the second put the Cats up10-0.
The Colonels then made a move. Orlandus Harris went up over and Lindley to haul in a 43-yard bomb at the Kentucky 10. EKU then caught the Cats off guard on fourth down from the 9. Kicker Logan O'Conner lined up for a 26-yard field goal attempt, but holder Marcus Williams took the snap and bolted untouched into the end zone with 2:44 left in the first half. Williams dropped the snap on the extra point, leaving Eastern down 10-6.
The Wildcats managed to get some much-needed breathing room with a touchdown just before intermission. Newton marched the offense 55 yards in six plays, hitting Gene McCaskill for 15 yards and King for 16. After Smith came up inches short of the goal line on a 15-yard run, he scored two plays later to give the Cats a 17-6 lead going into the break.
EKU Coach Dean Hood said it's hard for teams like Eastern to win on the road against BCS teams when the other team doesn't make many mistakes.
"That's a mark of the difference between a BCS and an FCS conference team," Hood said. "We don't play teams in the OVC that can go 10, 11, 12, 15-play drives without shooting themselves in the foot. They're going to put the ball on the ground, they're going to jump offsides and get themselves in long-yardage situations. Something bad is going to happen. Kentucky didn't just come out here and maul us. We made them take snaps and execute. But when the little things like that don't happen against a good football team, you're not going to win."
Newton got the Cats in scoring position on their first drive of the second half, but Seiber hooked a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left. Eastern had a chance to turn the Cats over, but EKU cornerback Andre Evans couldn't bring in an interception of a Newton pass that probably would have gone for a touchdown just a few plays before Seiber's missed field goal.
Newton got his first career TD pass on UK's next drive, a 14-yarder to Maurice Grinter with 2:28 left in the third quarter to make it 24-6.
"When you play a BCS conference team, especially from the SEC, your margin for error is going to be very small and you're going to have a chance, but when you get that one little crack of light, you have to make due," Hood said. "We really had a chance for an interception and that would have went to the house and now it's 17-13. That's not to say what the end of the game is going to be like, but I think you have a little better chance there."
Outside of the big passing play and fake field goal, Eastern had a hard time getting much going offensively when it mattered. The Colonels committed their first turnover of the game when Sam Maxwell stepped in front of a T.J. Pryor slant pass and returned it to the EKU 18. On the next play, Newton lofted a pass for Matthews in the end zone, and the 6-foot-5 junior-college transfer soared over a smaller Colonels defensive back to bring in an 18-yard TD pass with 1:24 left in the third. Seiber's missed extra point left it 30-6.
The victory was UK's 18th straight against non-conference opponents, which set a school record. It also brought Kentucky one win closer to bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season heading into this week's game at Vanderbilt.
"I think that it's a significant milestone," Brooks said of the non-conference streak. "There have always been slip-ups in the past, and we've avoided some of the slips that I know we had against those kind of teams early in my tenure when we were a little undermanned."