LEXINGTON – The fear, of course, was that Kentucky’s not-as-close-as-the- score-indicates 49-7 loss at Arkansas last week was a sign that even the players had given up on coach Joker Phillips.
Saturday’s 29-24 loss to the 12th-ranked (in the Associated Press poll) Georgia Bulldogs shows that Phillips’ oh-so-young bunch have not.
It also shows, in my opinion, that in many cases Phillips and his staff know what they’re doing. The evidence was largely in the growth, seemingly overnight, in the play of freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
It took three or four weeks to get it done, but offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was able to redesign a Kentucky offense to fit Whitlow’s style.
“I felt more comfortable out there,” Whitlow said. “I told myself before the game to go out and play football, play the game I have been playing since I was a little boy.”
“I think things are slowing down for him,” Phillips said of Whitlow. “I’ve never seen him uncomfortable. He’s never come out here with that deer-in-the- headlights look. But I think things are definitely slowing down for him.”
Whitlow isn’t the second coming of Cam Newton (yet), mind you, but he doesn’t have to be. Not when you have junior running backs Jonathan George (12 runs, 87 yards) and Raymond Sanders (18 runs, 73 yards) running like they did.
Not when you have Kentucky’s offensive line put- ting forth a good-enough- to-win effort.
Not when you have a UK defense with little more experience than a high school all-star team bending here and there but maintaining a resolve needed to win on most nights.
“I thought our team played with great effort,” Phillips said after his Wildcats fell to 1-7 overall and 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference. “We know we’ve got guys that are good players, guys with a good attitude, guys that are willing to come out and compete every day.
“When they (Georgia’s Bulldogs) went up 29-17 with five-and-a-half, six minutes left, it would have been easy for our offense to go out there and give up. But those guys drove down there and made a game out of it.
“I want to make sure everybody understands this team does not quit.”
Senior center Matt Smith said Saturday’s game reaffirmed what he knew was in this bunch of Wildcats.
“The way we played today is something I knew we had in us the whole time, something that hasn’t shown yet,” Smith said. “It’s amazing what we can do when we keep the injuries away for a whole week, and we get to prac- tice with the same guys we had the week before.
“I’m really proud of this team. They fought hard.”
“Kentucky had time to get their plan together, and they’ve got good personnel,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I know Coach Phillips is a very good coach. They do a lot of good things.”
Tavarres King, a senior wide receiver, led the Bull- dogs’ receivers with nine catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns. But King indicated it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“It’s the SEC,” King said. “Anybody can slip up on anybody at any time, and that’s why we’re the great- est conference in the nation. That is a good team. They’ve just had some tough breaks. They gave us their best, and we survived it.”
All so true, and all so maddening for Kentucky’s Wildcats, who have to wonder if it’s too late to save Phillips’ job.
Kentucky plays at Missouri Saturday at noon, returns home to face Vanderbilt and Samford, and then finishes the season at Ten- nessee.
I still believe Phillips and his staff can turn this ship around in the next year or two, but I also understand that if UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart brings this coaching staff back in 2013, Barnhart may not be able to GIVE away season tickets, let alone sell them.
Too bad he can’t offer some kind of money back guarantee for 2013 - if the Wildcats don’t win at least so many games and go to a bowl, you get your season ticket money back.
I just feel bad about it all because for every game like Arkansas, you see a game like Georgia or the first half against South Carolina...
Now, with these Wildcats mathematically eliminated from bowl contention, Phillips was asked Saturday what will motivate his team.
“We’ve got some seniors in there,” he said. “We’re motivated to play for those guys. Those seniors have been with us for a long time.”
Asked about the 54,000-plus who turned out Saturday to watch UK- Georgia, Smith said: “It made a huge difference. We hope that those fans keep coming out and we hope that we can get some of the others back.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, especially compared to these last couple of weeks. We’ve just been able to finally put four quarters together. It’s something that a lot of us have seen in practice, and know that’s what we can do, and we were finally able to do it.”