When Drew Barker was introduced over the Commonwealth Stadium P.A. system as the Wildcats starting quarterback, the hearty souls in the stands on a blustery evening cheered with some gusto.
At Kentucky, when football fortunes are bleak, the backup quarterback tends to be the most popular player on the team.
The trick, once thrust into action, is playing well enough to keep one’s favorability ratings high.
For Barker, his first college start was more solid than spectacular. But solid was plenty good enough for a UK team in desperate need of a victory.
Kentucky (5-6) snapped a five-game losing streak with a commanding 58-10 victory over overmatched Charlotte. For the second-straight season, the Cats will enter their regular-season finale against archrival Louisville needing a victory to become bowl eligible.
“I thought he did a good job under the circumstances,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “His first start, some pretty sloppy weather conditions.”
Apparently a tough self-evaluator, Barker said he would grade his first start “a C. I thought there were a lot of plays where I could have done better.”
Starting a football game for the first time since his Conner High School team was eliminated from the Class 5A playoffs by Anderson County in 2013, Barker completed 16-of-29 passes for 129 yards.
That was actually the first time I had ever played in the snow. It definitely made throwing the ball a challenge. The ball got hard; it was hard to get a good grip on it.
All of his completions came in the first half. He attempted only three passes in half two, when a driving snow storm made passing a challenge.
“That was actually the first time I had ever played in the snow,” Barker said. “It definitely made throwing the ball a challenge. The ball got hard; it was hard to get a good grip on it.”
Against a Charlotte defense that entered the game surrendering an average of 40 points a game during an eight-game losing streak, Barker benefitted greatly from a quarterback’s best friend:
A dominating running game.
Jojo Kemp ran for 165 yards and three touchdowns; Boom Williams added 140 yards and two touchdowns. Fourth-string UK running back Sihiem King chipped in 91 yards a score. For the game, Kentucky ran for 415 yards.
Still, most of a Commonwealth Stadium crowd announced at 56,195 endured gusting winds, pre-game rains and mid-game snow to see Barker’s debut.
The northern Kentucky product was the face of Kentucky’s ballyhooed 2014 recruiting class. Barker was ranked the 132nd best prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. Since he chose the Cats over Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, UK fans had been anxious to see Barker play.
Eleven games into the 2015 season, the erratic passing accuracy of incumbent UK starter Patrick Towles – and the five-game losing skid – provided Barker that chance.
Barker’s best work came in the first half, when he completed third-down passes to convert first downs four times.
UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson “is always saying you have to make plays on third down,” Barker said. “So it was cool to be able to do that.”
He also extended a UK drive by avoiding a blitz and hitting Jeff Badet for 15 yards on 4th-and-9 at the Charlotte 37.
That was Barker’s most impressive moment, as he evaded a Charlotte blitz, had to back pedal but still got the ball out to Badet. That play kept alive a drive that ended in UK’s first touchdown, a 6-yard run by Kemp.
In the two years Barker has been practicing at UK, the word coming out of Kentucky’s closed practices is that the QB’s great strengths are a quick release and ability/willingness to make decisive judgments in the pocket.
Both were apparent in the first half Saturday night, and both were needed.
Even against a Charlotte team playing its first game ever against a major-conference foe, Barker was under pressure often as the Kentucky offensive line continued to struggle to protect the passer.
It seems unlikely that UK can count on running for 415 yards next week against Louisville. So, with its season on the line, Kentucky is apt to have to ask Barker to do more.
If Wildcats fans are still cheering the sound of his name after next week’s game, then UK will be on to something.