September 10, 2012 - There's was nothing the Kentucky Wildcats football team could do Saturday night about the close to 20,000 empty seats at Commonmweath Stadium. The least attended home opener in years spoke volumes about what Kentucky fans thought about the state of the football program. Apathy probably more than anger for a program that had lost 15 of its previous 23 games and murmurs that favored son, Joker Phillips, might be running out of time after 25 years in Lexington as a player, assistant and now Head Coach.
There was nothing the Wildcats could do about the "outside distractions," other than what they did, pull away from Kent State with 30 unanswered points over the final 22 minutes to beat a determined and upset-minded MAC opponent 47-14. In this election year when we talk about candidates getting a "bump" from their conventions, Kentucky probably won't get much of a "bump" from this win. The cynical will say, the Wildcats did what they were supposed to do.
That is true but it's also a cheap and easy assessment of the Wildcats win. For fear of sounding like Nick Saban, we are way too quick to make pronouncements and judgements about a team and it's season. We want to crown champions and hand-out trophies...and bury teams before the season has barely started. The truth with Kentucky is that they're going to have to beat SEC teams to win back the fans. But they weren't playing a SEC team Saturday night, so they did what they could do. I think there is reason for at least moderate optimism in Lexington, if for no other reason, it appears offense has returned to the game plan.
A year ago the Wildcats were abysmal, one of the bottom three teams in the nation in total offense and averaged less than 12 ppg in conference games. That stat alone makes you wonder how they won a league game at all...but they did...albeit only two. In the past the one thing you could always count on with a Joker Phillips team, whether he be the OC or the head coach was that the Wildcats would score points. Might not stop anybody but at least they would score. They didn't even do that in 2011. But here in 2012 they've got some play makers again.
As OC Randy Sanders told me, not enough "erasers" (those guys that overcome the mistakes that so badly killed them in the season-opening loss at Louisville), but QB Maxwell Smith headlines a group of sophomores and freshman that signal that perhaps Kentucky's future isn't as gloomy as the naysayers suggest. Running a no-huddle offense that seems to suit Smith very well, the second year QB threw for a career-high 354 yards and 4 touchdowns in just his fifth career start. Senior WR Aaron Boyd had a career game with 11 catches for 100 yards and his first career TD catch. That performance perhaps means that the former top prospect in Kentucky might finally blossom in his final season in Lexington after totaling just six career receptions in his first three seasons. That's right, Aaron Boyd (the younger brother of former Wildcat Shane Boyd) had more catches vs Kent State in the first half alone than he had in three years combined. Credit Joker with believing in the kid and showing faith that he would finally contribute. Many coaches wouldn't have been as patient.
The defense is still giving up too many yards but I'm a stronger believer that when it comes to defense they only really need to be good enough every game to hold the opposition to one less point than your offense can score and in that regard, Kentucky's defense was more than good enough Saturday night.
My guess is that Kentucky fans feel at least a little bit better about the situation today than they did last week. There'll be less empty seats this coming Saturday versus WKU. I think Kentucky fans want Joker Phillips to succeed. He's a good guy. He's one of their own. Kentucky took a step in the right direction with Saturday night's win over Kent State...even if it was a small step.
Join Matt Stewart this Saturday night along with Chris Doering and Angela Mallen as the SEC on CSS continues when the Georgia Bulldogs host FAU at 7:30pm ET. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_StewartCSS.