UK Football

Mark Story: Joker Phillips needs a rally like the one that saved Rich Brooks in 2006

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Joker Phillips walked off the field with Mitch Barnhart, as Louisville defeated Kentucky 32-14  on Sunday September 2, 2012 in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach Joker Phillips walked off the field with Mitch Barnhart, as Louisville defeated Kentucky 32-14 on Sunday September 2, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

After Louisville thumped Kentucky 32-14 Sunday, WLEX TV's Alan Cutler asked Joker Phillips what the coach had to say to disgruntled Kentucky fans.

"I'm going to talk to my football team," the embattled UK head man said. "That's who I've got to get better."

It was a smart answer. At this point, there's nothing Phillips can say that is going to staunch the rampaging fan negativity that surrounds UK football. The only thing that can make things better is an improved product on the field.

Odd how these things work out. In his third year as head coach at his alma mater, Phillips, the ex-UK wide receiver and longtime Wildcats assistant, finds himself in pretty much the same spot his former Kentucky boss, Rich Brooks, was in during 2006.

Let's flash back. After three years in which the old coach weathered the after effects of Hal Mumme-era NCAA probation, Brooks started the 2006 season with a 9-25 record at Kentucky.

With a chance to totally alter the perception of his program in the '06 season opener against No. 13 Louisville, Brooks instead saw his team get run out of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium by Bobby Petrino's Cards, 59-28. After that night, you couldn't have found five people outside Brooks' immediate family who thought he would survive his fourth season as Kentucky coach.

Yet he did, his team essentially giving the coach a reprieve from the career executioner by winning five of its final six games in 2006.

One game into his third year, Phillips needs a similar rescue. After inheriting a program with a four-year streak of winning seasons, he now stands 11-15 as Kentucky head man. Even allowing for the signature UK victories Phillips has produced over Steve Spurrier and Tennessee, there are some disturbing trends emerging for Joker.

After winning his first three games as UK head man, Phillips has lost 15 of his last 23. In its last 15 games, Kentucky has been outgained 14 times, with the sole exception last year against Jacksonville State of the FCS.

The biggest difference between what is immediately ahead of Joker this season and the scenario Brooks faced in 2006 is that the '06 Cats contained a veteran core — think Woodson, Little, Burton, Tamme, Woodyard — that had weathered the lean probation years. That nucleus of players had both developed and matured and finally learned to win late in their junior seasons.

If there is that kind of talent on the current Kentucky roster, it is going to have to emerge, for the most part, from the freshman and sophomore classes.

While the past is not always prologue to the future, my experience from watching a truly distressing amount of Kentucky football across 48 years is that UK teams that lack veteran star power tend not to fare well.

Off what we saw in Louisville Sunday, there are mixed signals over whether the current Kentucky roster contains the manpower necessary to form the kind of cavalry that rode to Brooks' deliverance in 2006.

There were some encouraging signs.

The Kentucky offense, especially sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, showed genuine signs of promise. Smith (35-for-50 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions) completed passes to 11 different receivers.

The Californian directed the UK offense to seven first downs out of 13 third-down attempts. Against Charlie Strong's blitz happy defense, a poised Smith stood in the pocket and completed passes that converted a 3rd-and-8, a 3rd-and-11 and a 3rd-and-17.

Against a U of L defense that had 14 tackles for loss and six QB sacks against UK in 2011, a rebuilt Kentucky offensive line allowed only four tackles for loss and two sacks this time around.

Alas, whatever good feeling one took from UK's improved offense Sunday, the dismal performance of the Kentucky defense canceled it out.

Louisville's offensive numbers, 466 total yards and 32 points, were essentially accumulated in only three quarters of work by Cardinals QB Teddy Bridgewater. Strong pulled his sophomore star late in the third period.

The scary thing for Phillips should be the ease with which U of L did whatever it wanted offensively when the game was being decided. Out of 37 offensive plays in half one, U of L gained five yards or more on 23 of them. Twelve Cardinals plays before halftime went for 10 yards or more.

"I know we're better than that on defense," Phillips said after the game.

To have any hope of doing what Brooks did in 2006, the current Kentucky coach better be right about that.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader