Can Fat Cats be Good Cats?

By Brian Rickerd/State Journal Sports Writer Published:

LEXINGTON – Here’s to hoping the Kentucky Wildcats stop patting themselves on the back in time to be ready for a good Louisiana-Monroe football team Saturday night at 7 at Commonwealth Stadium (on Fox Sports South).

Long-suffering UK fans should be well aware that Fat Cats rarely equate to Good Cats. Despite the clear strides made in the UK program under Rich Brooks and his coaching staff, I would still argue that the Wildcats struggle to handle success.

Just a year ago the Wildcats were 6-3 at one point, then blew a golden chance to beat Georgia, losing 42-38, and then committed the sin of losing at home to Vanderbilt, 31-24, then felt flat at Tennessee, 28-10, only to regroup with a month off to win the Liberty Bowl over East Carolina.

Two seasons ago Mississippi State came to Lexington to play Kentucky in the prototype “trap” game for the Wildcats. UK was coming off a signature 43-37 win over then No. 1 LSU, followed by a good showing in a 45-37 loss to Florida. Kentucky played its worst game of the season and lost to Mississippi State 31-14.

In this case, of course, the Wildcats are coming off an improbable 21-14 victory at Auburn in what was arguably the third most significant victory of the Rich Brooks era in Lexington, with the others being the win over LSU in 2007 and perhaps the 24-20 win over Georgia in 2006.

It should be noted that the 2006 Kentucky team played Louisiana-Monroe two weeks after that Georgia game and escaped the Warhawks, 42-40.

Brooks was asked Monday if he has reminded this Kentucky team about that 2006 game with Monroe.

“Yes I have, and I will continue to do so,” Brooks replied emphatically.

Wave of joy

But will it sink in? I went out to Brooks’ weekly in-season press conference Monday aiming to write this very column only to get caught up myself in the wave of joy brought on by the Auburn game.

“Glory days, they’ll pass you by, in the wink of a young girl’s eye,” Bruce Springsteen sings.

Keep that in mind.

On Monday, I was struck by the fact that just days earlier, there were a good number of fans debating whether Brooks had improved the state of Kentucky football at all in his seven years, showing how stupid people come out of the woodwork when times are hard. Now, off what was no doubt a great win over Auburn’s Tigers, all of a sudden, the fans, and even the UK players themselves, were speculating on the possibilities of winning all of their remaining six regular season games.

Again, in the blink of a young girl’s eye, the talk with the fans, at least, wasn’t so much if the Wildcats could notch six wins and get to their fourth straight bowl game, but whether the team could get to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando or have to settle for the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

“I think it raises the confidence level sky high,” said Kentucky senior linebacker Micah Johnson of the impact of the win at Auburn.

“That’s what we needed, a big road win in the SEC,’’ said junior offensive lineman Brad Durham. “Now we have three home games, and we have to get our crowd behind us and take care of this home field advantage.”

Durham refers to the fact that after Saturday’s home game with Monroe, Kentucky hosts Mississippi State on Oct. 31 and Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 7.

Heads on straight

Here are at least a couple of reasons the Wildcats had better have their heads on straight come THIS Saturday.

Louisiana-Monroe is 4-2, having lost only at No. 3 Texas, 59-20, and at Arizona State, 38-14. The Warhawks are fresh off a 16-10 over an Arkansas State team that narrowly lost to undefeated Iowa recently.

It helps UK’s cause that the Warhawks lost their starting quarterback to injury in the Arkansas State game and will start a redshirt freshman at QB on Saturday. But Monroe is still a fundamentally sound team on both sides with a good running game and a very fast and quick, if not overly large, defense.

“They run a lot of misdirection, which is an offense we have struggled with,” Brooks said. “Defensively they will present a totally different set of problems. They are not as big as some defenses we play, but they do a whole bunch of stunting and twisting. They have very quick defensive linemen and will be a major challenge for our offensive line.”

Also, on the Kentucky side, the Wildcats physically are literally limping into this game, especially on offense. Junior tailback Derrick Locke, who’s been simply great, came out of a strong showing at Auburn with a swollen knee, the same knee he tore up a year ago. He’s questionable for Saturday.

Backup Alfonso Smith still wears a splint on a broken thumb that limits his ability to grip the football. Junior running back Moncell Allen has the flu. True freshman Donald Russell is next in line at tailback.

Also, though quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Will Fidler “managed” the game well at Auburn, neither one threw the ball with any success. Neither did the other QB, multi-talented sophomore Randall Cobb.

Brooks himself had warned several times since the Auburn game that the Wildcats simply MUST improve their passing attack if they are to be successful the rest of the season.

Kentucky had only 75 yards passing at Auburn.

“We cannot win very many games going forward if the passing numbers do not improve,” Brooks said. “We are challenged offensively right now and we cannot allow people to score a lot of points on us until we get back in sync in our passing game.”

“We’ll go back to the practice board and realize where we’re at,” Durham said on Monday when asked if the Wildcats may get fat heads. “We still made mistakes. Just because we won doesn’t mean we’re perfect.”

Let’s hope he’s sincere.

Game notes

Fewer than 500 tickets are available for home games against Monroe and Nov. 28 against Tennessee, and fewer than 1,000 remain for the Eastern Kentucky game. Call 800-928-2287 or use ukathletics.com for more information.

>The “Cat Walk” Saturday will start at 4:45 p.m. This week’s game is Military Night, an annual event that is always attended by a large contingent of soldiers who both loudly support Kentucky and also provide a poignant reminder that there are much more serious issues to worry about than the outcome of football games.

>Also, UK’s 2009 athletic Hall of Fame class will be honored during the game Saturday. The class includes former volleyball coach Kathy DeBoer, football player Wilbur Hackett, baseball player and contributor Jim Host, swimmer Rachel Komisarz, basketball player Mike Pratt and baseball pitcher Brandon Webb.

>UK’s game with Mississippi State on Oct. 31 also will start at 7 p.m., while the EKU game on Nov. 7 will be a 1 p.m. kickoff.

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