They say that in times of trouble you should stay close to the ones who love you and Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky’s football Wildcats were surrounded by loved ones.
After all, who but the die hards would brave the cold, the rain, the snow squalls —yes, snow —and the negative vibes to actually show up and see their beloved Cats snap a five-game losing streak with a 58-10 win over overmatched Charlotte.
“A much-needed win,” said Coach Mark Stoops.
And what did the frigid faithful —announced at 56,195 but in actuality was probably half that — receive for their loyalty? They saw quarterback Drew Barker claim his first collegiate win in his first collegiate start. They saw running backs Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp each rush for 100 yards. They saw the Kentucky defense handle the 49ers as if they were going up against the scout team offense over at the Nutter Training Center.
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Here’s the real question: Did the bluest of the Big Blue Nation see enough improvement to think the Cats can reverse the regression and beat arch-rival Louisville next Saturday and procure that magic sixth win needed for bowl eligibility?
Hard to say. Charlotte made it hard to say. A peach-fuzz of a program, the 49ers are new to this major-college football stuff. Kentucky was Charlotte’s first Power 5 conference opponent. And the 49ers arrived in Lexington rated as the worst FBS team in the nation by Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today computer. A 24-point underdog, Charlotte failed to muster even that much resistance.
Truth be told, Saturday was more about Stoops and his team’s confidence than about the degree of difficulty. Kentucky needed to not only put the brakes on the five-game skid but erase the memory of wasted opportunities and coaching gaffes from that frustrating 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt the week before.
Saturday night met most of the job requirements. The home team experienced no embarrassing errors, few penalties and no special teams blunders. On the same day Florida and Georgia needed overtime to beat lesser foes, the Cats handled the undermanned 49ers the way an SEC team is supposed to beat the overmatched.
If Barker wasn’t asked to throw the ball down the field, the former Conner star showed that he can make quick decisions. For the most part, the ball left Barker’s throwing hand quickly and for the most part went to the right place. On only a couple of occasions did his passes appear telegraphed or in danger of heading back in the other direction.
The UK offensive line, thrown around at Georgia two weeks back, opened noticeably large holes for Williams and Kemp to zip through. The running backs, plus freshman Sihiem King, took advantage. There were lots of long-distance touchdown runs.
Stoops’ defense got involved as well when redshirt freshman safety Mike Edwards picked off a pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. Then, late in the fourth quarter, the Kentucky defense stopped the 49ers on fourth down inside the UK 15-yard line. Alas, the Cats quickly fumbled the ball right back and Charlotte cashed in with a touchdown at the 4:54 mark. No biggie.
Stoops referred to the next seven days as “a very important week.”
It may not have helped Kentucky’s case that Louisville lost at Pittsburgh 45-34 on Saturday. The Cards will bring a 6-5 record to CWS next Saturday to face the 5-6 Cats. U of L Coach Bobby Petrino will no doubt be spitting nails at his Cards all week after being pummeled by Pitt. And Louisville would love nothing more than to keep UK out of the postseason.
After Saturday night, Kentucky will come from the opposite direction, at least part of its confidence restored.
After thanking those fans who did show up, Stoops said, “We needed a game like this.”
Louisville at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC Network)