LEXINGTON – It would be foolish to suggest that the Kentucky Wildcats have turned some kind of corner based on Saturday’s 30-13 victory over the Ole Miss Rebels at Commonwealth Stadium.
UK improved to 4-5 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, while Ole Miss fell to 2-7 and 0-6.
But there are a few certainties that did come out of this game for Kentucky, and most of them are positive.
1. The seat where UK coach Joker Phillips sits is no longer hot, if it ever truly was. It’s not even warm. Joker will be Kentucky’s coach next season, and if the Wildcats can finish strong, say, win two of the next three and get to a bowl, I would predict that Joker will be here as long as he wants.
Even if the Wildcats win just one of the next three (Saturday they are at Vanderbilt, at Georgia on Nov. 19 and home to Tennessee on Nov. 26), Phillips’ long term health as UK coach is at worst in a holding pattern.
For my money, when I see a team reeling as this Kentucky was through mid-season, I look to see if the players are still competing hard. That tells me whether or not the coach has lost his team.
Phillips’ Wildcats play hard. I haven’t seen a letdown in effort. They haven’t always played well, mind you, but they’ve played hard. And it’s no coincidence, as a result, that the Wildcats ARE improving. There can’t be any doubt about that.
And, yes, it’s true that the last two opponents, Mississippi State and Mississippi are not Florida, LSU and South Carolina. But when you see improvement as I saw here against the Rebels, confidence usually follows. And when you add it all up, a team will start performing better against better teams.
2. Kentucky has found a quarterback in freshman Maxwell Smith. Smith wasn’t great against Ole Miss; he missed several receivers who were open down field, say, in the 25 to 45 yard range. But I’m not going to crucify him, either, since he was making just his first college start.
Smith completed 19 of 36 passing for 283 yards with no interceptions. UK, in fact, had no turnovers in this game.
What I see in Smith is a terrific arm and a presence in the pocket that’s hard to put a finger on. Smith looks like a leader to me, and I believe his teammates see him that way as well.
“He had a few minor mistakes, a couple missed calls, but coming from a freshman quarterback stepping up in his first SEC game (as a starter), I’m impressed,” said junior wide receiver La’Rod King, who caught a beautifully thrown 38-yard touchdown pass from Smith with 12:22 left that put Kentucky up for good at 16-13. “Max did a really good job. He came out and played with confidence, and we have confidence in our quarterback.”
“Max did an unbelievable job,” Phillips said. “He took some hits. To me, a big time quarterback takes it right in the lips and stands in there and delivers, and he did that numerous times.”
Smith admitted he did grow frustrated in the first half when he overthrew a few receivers who had gained separation downfield better than at any previous point this season.
“I wasn’t able to follow through on a couple because I got hit, and I’m not sure if some of it was adrenaline,” Smith said of his misfires. “I didn’t feel I was putting that much on it, but I told them at halftime, I am going to hit you guys, just trust me. I’m going to get it to you.”
Smith had two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter that brought UK back from a 13-10 deficit. Outside of the nice scoring pass to King, Smith also hit Gene McCaskill with an eight-yard pass that clinched the win with 2:49 left, putting UK up 23-13.
“He is performing like a freshman at times, but he’s also showing signs of being a great quarterback for us,” Phillips said.
Roark has another great outing
And senior wideout Matt Roark had his second straight good game with seven catches for 116 yards. King was next with three receptions for 102 yards, including a long of 55 yards.
Junior running back CoShik Williams added a 10-yard TD run with 1:18 left for insurance. Williams, oh by the way, had another nice game, with 111 yards rushing on 25 carries.
Kentucky’s offensive line also did a nice job, despite the above-mentioned hits taken by Smith. Ole Miss frequently stacked the box, and brought the house, so to speak, trying to rattle Smith. Under those circumstances, the Wildcat linemen held up very well. They also opened up some nice holes for Williams to run, and Williams is a guy who clearly can get to the hole in a hurry.
Defense solid for UK
Defensively, the Wildcats also played well. The Kentucky defenders had some shaky moments early in the game, but after the first quarter they played solid. I don’t remember the last time I saw UK’s front seven pressure an opposing quarterback like the Wildcats did in this game.
Ole Miss QB Randall Mackey rarely had time to sit back and relax. He hit 14 of 29 passes for 197 yards with one interception.
Kentucky senior linebacker Danny Trevathan came up with the pick for the Wildcats. This shouldn’t be a news flash to anyone but Trevathan is flat out great.
Trevathan led all defenders with 17 tackles against Ole Miss, after racking up the same number a week earlier in the 28-10 loss to Mississippi State.
“Danny is unbelievable,” Phillips said of Trevathan, who plays all out, all the time, in good times and in bad. “Danny is definitely the leader of this football team, not only by the way he plays but by the way he prepares for the games. He’s started to lead vocally, and that has started to bring other people with him.”
Senior linebacker Winston Guy also had another good game with 10 tackles.
Long way to go for bowl game
The road is still steep for the Wildcats in terms of reaching six wins needed for bowl eligibility and potentially their sixth straight post-season berth. Vanderbilt has played the SEC elite a lot better than Kentucky has and should be favored to beat the Wildcats on Saturday. Ditto for Georgia a week later. Tennessee? Kentucky can match up with the Vols.
So I still predict a 5-7 finish for Kentucky.
But, there’s hope, and that kind of thing was in precious short supply just a couple weeks ago.
“We’ve been talking about locking arms and going to work for each other,” Phillips said. “When players start to gain some confidence, they start to practice a little harder, and it shows up in games.”
“We were a little down, a little shaken and rattled because we were trying to find answers,” added King, presumably referring to a brutal start to the season that had UK at 2-4 and reeling off bad losses to Florida, LSU and South Carolina. “But this really brings the team together.
“Just never give up. It’s a long season.”
Fields out with hip pointer
Phillips announced after the game that Frankfort’s E.J. Fields, a junior wide receiver, suffered a hip pointer early against Ole Miss. Fields has been a mainstay on special teams. We’ll know more about the extent of his injury over the next couple of days.