By: LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Fans are already speculating on who Kentucky should consider for its next football coach, but two of coach Joker Phillips’ best young players says the coach is not the reason UK is off to a 1-2 start after Saturday night’s 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky.
“Coach Phillips is a good coach. He is trying real hard to help us be great. We just have to follow his footsteps and continue to listen to what he says and keep pushing ourselves,” said sophomore linebacker Bud Dupree, who had a late personal foul penalty that enable Western to score in overtime.
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith threw four interceptions, but also led UK on a late scoring drive to tie the game and then got the Cats into the end zone in overtime to take a 31-24 lead.
“I don’t feel the heat. I don’t think he (Phillips) feels the heat. He is a man and he is going to be perfectly fine,” Smith said. “Coach is going to keep coaching the way he has been and do a great job. We have to win some games for him. It is not his fault we are not winning.
“We have to execute on the field. Our coaches are great and do a great job. We just have to make plays offensively and defensively. They do a very good job. We just have to keep fighting.”
That’s not going to be easy considering UK plays at No. 14 Florida Saturday with the Gators coming off a convincing win at Tennessee.
“It’s good to be on the road. I love the crowd noise, hostile environment. They will be loud and rowdy. They are a very good team, but maybe playing on the road will be good for us,” Smith, who has thrown 111 passes the last two weeks against Kent State and Western Kentucky, said.
“It will be hard to put the loss behind us, but we have to move on. We have to get ready for Florida and get ready for the real conference now,” Dupree, who had 12 tackles and one tackle for loss Saturday, said. “They are going to be really loaded. We have to get real prepared and expect everything. We have to come out and play loose.”
Real prepared? Expect everything? Too bad Kentucky maybe didn’t do that against Western instead of falling behind 17-0. Dupree and Smith made no excuses, and shouldn’t have.
“We should have just executed a whole lot better than we did from the get-go. We did better the second half. We had a chance to come out with the win, but we just didn’t take advantage of what we had after overcoming that rough start,” Dupree said.
“Even though we are 1-2 that doesn’t have anything to do with our young talent. They are young and still learning the plays. We will win games. I know that. The season is not over with,” Smith, who threw for 332 yards and two scores after his horrendous start, said.
Optimistic? Certainly. However, that’s what the quarterback should be believing or the season is truly over.
“You got teams like Arkansas that are down, too, right now. They lost to a Sun Belt team (Louisiana-Monroe). Auburn almost did but pulled it out in overtime. Vanderbilt is 1-2. We just have fight. Now is the toughest part (in SEC play) and we just have to fight and battle our way through and get more wins,” Smith said.
Arkansas and Vanderbilt are not as good as anticipated. Tennessee probably isn’t, either. But neither is UK and thinking Kentucky will beat any SEC teams at this point based on the defensive woes UK has had is a bit optimistic.
“This is probably one of the lowest times since I have been here. As a team, we have to come out and boost things back up,” Dupree said. “Losing makes me want to work harder, but it does hurt your confidence losing to a team like Western that we should have beat.”
Smith said one thing that was a bit perplexing after the game when asked about the way UK scored on its last two drives.
“When we want to or need to, we can go down and put points on the board,” Smith said.
Well, why not do it all the time then? That just doesn’t send the right message about the team’s sense of urgency against Western Kentucky and why UK would have been overconfident against anyone is bewildering.
Do give Smith credit for playing in pain the fourth quarter. Remember he sprained his face at LSU last year and separated his shoulder against Georgia and missed UK’s win over Tennessee.
“When I separated my shoulder against Georgia, I couldn’t move it at all. I hurt it and was able to continue to play tonight. That last drive I had already hurt it, but I’ll be fine,” Smith said.
Dupree hopes UK will eventually be fine, too, and he took time to thank the fans who came to the game and stayed to support the Cats — even in overtime.
“Tell our fans who stayed thank you for the support and we have to get better for their sake and our sake to make sure they want to stay and watch us,” Dupree said. “We all need to step up and not let anyone slack. Each player needs to do that so we can have good games and make sure every player does his best and lays it all on the line.”
Again, though, why would anyone playing for UK think he didn’t need to lay “all on the line” in any game is as baffling as how UK was so thoroughly outplayed by a Western Kentucky team that just a few years ago couldn’t seem to beat anyone.