It's only one game, but it's also the game

John Clay
John Clay

Make the move from assistant to head coach and you'd think not a lot would change.

It's still football. It's still Xs and Os. It's still Jimmys and Joes. The field remains 100 yards long, the ball still pigskin brown, the competition still intense.

Here's the difference: Assistant coaches give advice. Head coaches make decisions.

This being Kentucky-Louisville week, new UK head coach Joker Phillips is facing one of those decisions for the first time.

How do you treat such an important game, a do-or-die game for your fans, when you still have to play at least 11 more after that?

"We've got to take them one at a time," Phillips said Saturday. "This is a very, very important game. Why? Because it's the next one on our schedule."

Cliché, yes. True, yes. But it's THE Louisville game. Rival game. Bragging rights. Recruiting edge. Blood boils. Emotions rise. One state. Fans of different sentiments have to live with each other, and all that.

"It's an important game because of momentum," Phillips said. "We always talk about the momentum. The team that's won this game usually leaves with momentum that helps them carry out throughout the rest of the season."

Kentucky has won the last three meetings, sweeping Steve Kragthorpe in his three years at the U of L helm. Kentucky went on to bowl game appearances in all three of those years. Louisville found itself sitting at home for the holidays.

Before Kragthorpe, Louisville had beaten Kentucky four straight, Bobby Petrino's Cards beating Rich Brooks' Cats all four times. In each of those four years, Louisville went on to a bowl game, including an Orange Bowl appearance after the 2006 season. In just one of those years, 2006, did UK rebound and earn an invitation to post-season play.

Momentum might be even more important this time around. Both schools have first-year coaches. Phillips was a longtime UK assistant before ascending to the top spot. Louisville's Charlie Strong paid his dues at several stops before being given the keys to the Cardinals program. Phillips is tweaking. Strong is re-booting.

Saturday's winner gets immediate affirmation that the changes are working. It can ride the wave. The loser has to regroup, stress that the road is paved by persistence, and get ready for the rest of the campaign.

"This is a big game, and we want to win," said senior running back Derrick Locke. "To accomplish what we want to accomplish, you got to get the first one."

"We aren't even looking to the next 11," Phillips said. "We're looking at this game, and this game only. And that's the thing that our team has to understand."

Do they?

"We got a lot of guys that are playing and haven't been in a big game and don't know what it's going to be like," Locke said. "They think it's a non-conference game, but it's not really like that. This is a game, it's like a conference game for us."

Ah, but for Kentucky, even after Saturday, there are eight important conference games left on the schedule. There's that 10-year losing streak to South Carolina. Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida since 1986. It hasn't beaten Tennessee since — you know, you know — 1984.

But that's down the road. And just because there's someone new behind the wheel, there's going to be a new approach. You take them one game at a time. And the next game is Louisville. A big game.

"It's the only one we have (listed) in our locker room," Phillips said. "It's the only one we have in all of our meeting rooms, that's up, the Louisville game. We're not looking past this one, because this is an important game for us."

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