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By LARRY VAUGHT
Even though his team was reeling from a 49-7 loss at Arkansas and a 28-point underdog at home to Georgia, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips insisted his team would not quit.
Guess what? He was right.
No, Kentucky didn’t win. Georgia overcame a first-half deficit to take the lead and then hold off Kentucky 29-24. But the Cats didn’t wilt. They ran the ball (206 yards on 43 carries) better than they have in any Southeastern Conference game. The defense was stout against the run (77 yards on 32 attempts) even if it did have trouble stopping Georgia quarterback Andy Murray’s passing (30 for 38 for 427 yards and four touchdowns) due in large part to playing three true freshmen in the secondary most of the game.
“No one can say this team has quit. We have a young team that comes to practice excited to play, excited to practice. That is the type effort you saw tonight,” said Phillips. “I was never worried. But I wanted to make sure everyone understood that.”
Give Phillips credit, too, for taking some chances with some unconventional plays. Some worked. Some didn’t. But for a coach fighting to save his job, he was playing to win rather than playing not to lose and his players obviously appreciated that.
Two crucial plays in the second half went against UK. First, the Cats had Georgia stopped at its own 19-yard line when the Cats were called for running into the punter even though it appeared that Mike Douglas was blocked into the punter. That gave the ball back to Georgia and the Bulldogs scored to take a 29-17 lead.
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow returned to the lineup after missing most of the second half with a migraine headache — that’s right, he got a migraine during the game and had to sit out unless his vision stopped being distorted — to lead a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that cut the deficit back to 29-24 with 3:59 left. Phillips went for the onside kick and kicker Joe Mansour patiently waited for the ball to travel 10 yards. Just before it got 10 yards, a Georgia player dove in front of Mansour to get the ball and deny UK a chance for a game-winning drive.
“We didn’t get the right speed on the ball. He (Mansour) was just waiting (for the ball) to cross 10 yards. Heads up play by him waiting until he thought it crossed the 10-yard line. We just did not have enough speed on the ball and their guy got to the ball before we got to it,” Phillips said.
Of course, if a Georgia field goal had not bounced off the upright and through the goal post on the final play of the first half, UK would have trailed just 26-24 at the time and likely would have kicked the ball deep rather than gambled with the onside kick.
But the biggest story here was that the Cats stayed in the game against a team no one thought they could beat.
“When they up 29-17 it would have been easy for our offense to go out there and give up. Those guys drove down and made a game out of it,” Phillips said.
Receiver Demarco Robinson, who completed a 33-yard pass on a trick play to set up a score, said the players sense that “everybody was kind of down on us” going into the game.
“I felt like we played better than the previous week, but we knew we would. We’ve got a lot of old guys to play for. A lot of young guys need to play. The fans that come to the games, we owe them to play hard,” Robinson said.
Kentucky averaged 4.8 yards per run as Jonathan George ran for 87 yards and Raymond Sanders, a Georgia native, added 72 yards.
“We rushed the ball, which gave us a chance,” Phillips said. “When you run the ball the way we did against a really good defense, you have to give credit to the guys up front. They did a good job opening holes. Credit goes to the guys up front.”
That’s a given, but George and Sanders also picked their holes, ran hard and ran through tackles at times to keep the offense on the field and avoid letting Murray get back on the field.
Still, there are no moral victories in the SEC. As Phillips often says, the SEC is a “grown man’s league” and teams play to win, not keep a game close or beat the point spread. That’s true even if a solid effort at a time when a coach is fighting to keep his job had to help everyone.
“Every week you want to find out what you have. We know those guys are good players. Guys with good attitude and got good character. We know what we have,” Phillips said. ‘I don’t really live in almost. At the end of the year you don’t say we almost won. The record will say wins and losses. We don’t come out here to almost win. We come out here to win.”
Which Kentucky almost did.