It has cruise control game written all over it.
A struggling Charlotte team that hasn’t won since Sept. 12 is coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
The 49ers have lost eight straight and are among the nation’s worst offensively, averaging just 19.3 points a game.
Their offensive line is allowing the most sacks in the nation, nearly the most tackles for loss.
They got rocked by Middle Tennessee State 73-14 the third game of the season.
So even though the temptation to set it on cruise control is probably there for Kentucky, there are even more reasons for the Cats to try and floor it.
“An opportunity to get back on the right track, get a victory,” Coach Mark Stoops said of his UK team, which is riding a five-game losing streak of its own.
“Our team desperately needs one at this point in time. It’s been a tough stretch for us and looking forward to a good game and getting home this weekend and trying to play some of our best football of the year.”
That might mean playing in truly cold weather for the first time this season and possibly some rain. It might mean playing in front of a less than full Commonwealth Stadium.
Those conditions aside, the Cats still have lots of reasons to play hard this week and next against rival Louisville.
“If you can’t get fired up with two games, you have to win both, then I don’t know if you should really be on this team,” newly crowned starting quarterback Drew Barker said.
Kentucky hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2010 and it wants to end the season with some momentum.
“We have to win these two or we’re going home again on Christmas break and no one likes going home and watching your friends on TV in bowl games,” Barker continued. “So this is definitely really, really big.”
If there have been any remnants of a hangover from the Vanderbilt loss last week, where UK shot itself in the foot multiple times, the coaches say they haven’t seen it.
The defense, which played one of its most complete games of the season last week, is trying to focus on improving no matter who it plays next, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
“We look at improving as a team and as a defense,” he said when asked how his group stays enthusiastic for this game. “Each player has plenty of things that he can get better at. That’s what our emphasis has been.”
Stoops knows the frustration.
He’s heard it on his coach’s radio show.
He’s heard about it from fans.
He feels it himself.
The head coach vowed that this game will not be one where Kentucky goes on cruise control. It has too many places it’s still trying to go.
“We have two games left,” Stoops said. “It’s going to start this week with Charlotte and I promise you the team will come out inspired and ready to play.
“I know it’s been a long time since we won, been to a bowl game and all those things. We know what we’re in for, but we’re going to hunker down, get back to work and get better.”
Avoiding the great divide
There was no denying the anger for the defensive players after the loss to Vanderbilt where they played one of their best games of the season and the offense struggled to score even though it had multiple trips to the goal line.
Expletives were used. Lots of heads were shaking.
Stoops worried about the split, too, when he saw the hurt faces in the locker room after the defeat.
“We expect to win and go play to win and when we don’t we’re upset about it,” he said. “I absolutely have no worries about it carrying over into this week.”
Barker said he had no worries about the two sides of the ball turning on each other. He pointed to offseason workouts where the two sides are not split into separate groups.
“We’re all training together,” he said. “Offense and defense and we build that relationship.”
And those relationships carry over onto the field where offensive guys are the first to greet the defense after a bad series and vice versa.
“When we come off after a three-and-out or something, they’re always cheering on the sidelines like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go,’” Barker said. “Really it works both ways. It’s awesome to be a part of a team like that.”
Both sides need each other, linebacker Khalid Henderson said.
“At the end of the day, just got to remember it’s a team sport, probably one of the biggest team sports in the world,” the senior said. “Gotta understand it takes 11 guys on both sides of the ball to win the game. We can’t do it by ourselves; they can’t do it by themselves.”
News and notes
The next time Kentucky’s in short yardage situations, especially at the goal line, expect to see a good dose of running back Jojo Kemp. And fewer (read: no) passes.
Judging by comments made this week, UK’s plan was to run the ball on every down of the Cats’ empty trips near the goal on Saturday versus Vanderbilt. Instead UK threw twice, including one that was picked off in the end zone.
In hindsight, Stoops said he would’ve told offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson to “run the ball three times in a row or four downs in a row,” he said. “Pound it, pound it, pound it. …
“If we’d run the same play that we ran on third down, if we run it four plays in a row we definitely score. We were getting the movement, getting the block.”
And after assessing options in that situation — especially with Boom Williams still coming back from an elbow injury — Stoops said he’s urging the offense to look at Kemp as the short yardage option.
▪ Kentucky appears to be fairly healthy going into the Charlotte game with Stoops saying that special teams regular Joey Herrick will return to the field this week. Offensive lineman Cole Mosier, who missed last week with a head injury, practiced this week and should return as well.
Charlotte at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)