John Clay

Joker still looks good after win No. 1

Kentucky's Randall Cobb, left, and Moncell Allen raised the Governor's Cup after UK defeated Louisville 23-16 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Saturday.
Kentucky's Randall Cobb, left, and Moncell Allen raised the Governor's Cup after UK defeated Louisville 23-16 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE — There was no toilet-hugging, but the new head coach almost got his nose broken.

It was late in the third quarter of Kentucky's 23-16 win over Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and UK's Mychael Bailey had just intercepted a Louisville pass in front of the visiting bench when the Cats started jumping around and celebrating, and Joker Phillips went to give his free safety a congratulatory hug, and ...


"When I grabbed (Bailey), somebody hit him from behind and his face mask went into my nose," said Phillips, who for all the world thought his nose was broken. "Do I still look good? Do I still look good?"

Oh yeah, he owned the glow of a winner.

"Still undefeated," Phillips said, smiling.

For the fourth year in a row, Kentucky won the Governor's Cup, holding off the Cardinals on a cool, sunny day in U of L's newly expanded stadium. New being the word of the day. New head coach for Louisville in Charlie Strong. New head coach for Kentucky in Strong's friend, Phillips, who for the past two seasons had been the Cats' coach in waiting, ready to take the reins when Rich Brooks retired.

When the day finally came, and game week approached, Phillips said he was calm about it all, but he admitted Monday that by Saturday morning he'd probably be "hugging a toilet somewhere." Didn't happen.

"It was as relaxed as I've ever been," Phillips said. "I decided I was just going to come out here and have fun and watch this football team perform."

So coming from the coaching box upstairs to the sidelines downstairs, Phillips started off thinking outside the box. Where his predecessor Brooks — who was in the stands Saturday, by the way — nearly always deferred the decision to the second half whenever UK won the opening coin toss, Phillips opted to take the football.

"We wanted to go out and hit them in the mouth," Randall Cobb said. "We wanted to try and get up on them quick."

Did they ever. First play, quarterback Mike Hartline completed a 38-yard pass to La'Rod King. Second play, Derrick Locke motored 32 yards for a touchdown. All of 35 seconds had elapsed. Welcome to the Joker Phillips Era.

The Cats couldn't keep up that blistering pace, of course. But the first half was a nice opening act. The oft-criticized Hartline showed mobility and moxie. The senior extended plays and made plays. Battling a bruised calf, Locke made some big runs on the way to a 115-yard rushing afternoon.

And as for Cobb, well, Phillips and new play-caller Randy Sanders showed they haven't forgotten about the WildCobb formation. The fleet junior took a direct snap and covered 51 yards less than three minutes into the second quarter to give UK a 20-3 lead. It was 20-6 Cats at the half.

"I came in at halftime and asked them, 'Are you having as much fun as I'm having?'" Phillips said afterward. "I felt like a proud papa."

Second half, Phillips probably felt more like a frustrated parent. The offense moved the ball but couldn't score points. The defense allowed an 80-yard touchdown run by U of L's Bilal Powell. Give Strong credit. The Louisville staff made some nice adjustments. It'll take time, but Strong will get the 'Ville back on track.

Already on track, Kentucky wants to go faster and farther. "For us to have a great season, we have to win this game," Phillips said. "We can still have a good season if we don't. But to have a great season, you've got to win this game here. That was what I was more excited about. Not me."

Truth be told, much of the first one was about him. Being an assistant is just that, assisting. Being a head coach is being the man in charge, making the decisions. "We had talked about taking the ball first," Sanders said, "but I didn't know if he was still going to do it. That's why he gets the big bucks."

And the head decision-maker is easy to spot.

"The only thing that happens in the coaches' box is the fans booing you," Phillips said, a big smile on his face.

The nit-pickers will pick their nits over the second-half performance. That's OK. Kentucky has beaten Louisville four straight. The Cats are 1-0. Joker Phillips is 1-0. The new head coach might have had a little cut over that bruised nose, but you could hardly notice it for his winning smile.

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