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By LARRY VAUGHT
If Joker Phillips was on the hot seat before this game, he’s been thrown into the furnace now. That’s what a 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky will do to a coach who has had back-to-back losing seasons and no longer can live off a win over South Carolina in 2010 or Tennessee last season to save his job.
Not after his Southeastern Conference team was physically beaten most of the game by Western, a Sun Belt Conference foe. Not after the Wildcats showed no more speed or playmaking ability than Western. Not after his team lost when Western went for a two-point conversion in overtime and easily scored on a trick play — a throwback pass to the quarterback.
Granted, UK is not the only program in the SEC struggling. Arkansas is in disarray. Vanderbilt is 1-2. Tennessee got a dose of reality when it was crushed by Florida Saturday. Auburn needed overtime to beat Louisiana-Monroe, another Sun Belt team and the team that beat Arkansas last year.
But this loss means UK is THIRD in the state. The Cats were smacked by Louisville to open the season and now have lost to Western.
Of course, the loss should not have been that stunning. Remember, Western came close last year and lost 14-3 because it didn’t take advantage of some chances to score. Last week Western went to No. 1 Alabama and lost 35-0, but had eight tackles for loss and was not overwhelmed. Anyone think UK could do the same?
Western raced to a 17-0 lead in this game because UK quarterback Max Smith, who had been efficient with his throws the first two games, was picked off three times in his first 16 passes. It took a late second-quarter rally for UK to get back in the game at 17-10 and keep the Commonwealth Stadium fans from leaving.
But make no mistake about it. Western dominated the line and showed absolutely no fear. Kentucky’s play was so uninspiring that the ESPNU crew covering the game called UK a “lower level SEC team” — and no one at UK can argue.
Well, maybe Phillips can try.
“Western was a real physical team, but I thought we matched them,” said Phillips.
Matched them? Maybe, but shouldn’t a SEC team do more than match a Sun Belt team?
“I still really think we have a good football team. Just didn’t make enough plays. You can’t turn the ball over (four times).
Defensively, we didn’t get ourselves off the field,” Phillips said.
Good teams, though, do make plays, don’t turn the ball over and do get off the field. Since Kentucky didn’t do that and is now 1-2, it’s hard to call Kentucky a good team right now.
“It was a tough loss,” senior receiver Aaron Boyd said. “Any loss is tough to swallow, but this one is really hard. They made one more play than we did. We just have to take it like a man and get ready for Florida. We knew they would come in here and want to make a statement by beating a SEC team, and they did.”
They did to the point that Western coach Willie Taggart said after the game that his team was the “WKU red is the new blue” in the state, a statement Phillips obviously didn’t like but refrained from directly commenting on even though he raised his voice while explaining he would not comment on that.
“I respect Willie. I think he has done a hell of a job there. I am not about to talk about someone else’s program or have our kids run their mouth. I am not going to do it,” Phillips said.
Does he worry about keeping his team together after this loss that will certainly having many UK fans turning their thoughts to basketball season?
“No, I don’t, he said.
What about fans who will worry that this team will hang its head going into SEC play?
“We had the opportunity to hang our heads today. Wouldn’t you say? We were down in the first half and late in the second half,” Phillips said. “This team … I have heard the word soft. This team is not soft. This team is tough. We are not a soft football team. We have tough individuals in that locker room.”
However, there are a lot of questions starting with Phillips having to suspend running back Raymond Sanders, who had his best game at UK the previous week, for the game for disciplinary reasons. Or maybe explaining why the defensive front, considered the strength of UK’s team, gave up another 151 yards rushing.
Phillips and his players said there was no discussion about going for two points with 23 seconds left in regulation when Demarcus Sweat scored on a 22-yard reception to cut the lead to 24-23.
“I didn’t hear any discussion of going for two,” said Smith, who overcame his shaky start to complete 37 of 60 passes for 332 yards and two scores.
“We had the momentum. We decided we were at home and try to continue to play overtime and it looked good at the time, especially after we got the ball back and put it in the end zone,” Phillips said.
But it didn’t look to good when Western also scored in overtime and then never hesitated to go for the game-winning conversion, a trick play Taggart put in just this week in hopes it might help win this game.
“I just don’t what to say,” UK linebacker Bud Dupree, who had 12 tackles, said. “We know we should have won this game. We’re better than this.”
Maybe. But maybe not, too, and that’s what UK players and coaches better realize.