When the season began, I was often asked for my prediction as to the likely football record. My answer was always the same…this is a 6-6 team with the chance to go 8-4 due to the schedule. Well the schedule opened up even brighter than we imagined, and yet Kentucky still went 6-6. A lot of reasons can be pinpointed for this result, ranging from a poor defense to injuries to some heartbreaking “typical” UK football losses. But for me, a theme continued that began when Joker Phillips was a playcaller, the unbelievable lack of aggression that has become symptomatic of the Joker era. I like Joker Phillips. He is a great recruiter, seems to be a good coach and his players do truly like him. However when it comes to recognizing what it takes to win at Kentucky in big games, I question whether he grasps the “it” factor. Kentucky is not going to be as talented as most of the teams they play in the SEC. They can compete at the skill positions, but they dont have the depth at the power positions and will always wear down in a season when the second string becomes important. Knowing that, Kentucky has to be the aggressor. A game that comes down to the wire will favor the more talented team…and UK usually will not be that team. So you must grab the bull by the horn and go for the gusto…and Joker never does.
We joke about the Joker Phillips “bubble screen” (which has mysteriously disappeared now that Randy Sanders calls plays), but showcases what his offensive system entailed the last few years. He would run the Wildcobb on a key drive to take Tennessee inside the ten in Commonwealth Stadium and then not hand the ball to the player who got him there (Randall Cobb) on the three biggest plays in recent UK-UT history. And now that his role has gone from playcaller to game manager, the conservative approach is back once again. This can be seen on the macro level, where Joker and Randy Sanders rarely throw the ball down the field and create a playbook that only showcases 4-8 yard pass plays and a number of “we run because we have to” dives up the middle. But it also can be seen on the micro level, when UK gets in a situation such as the one today. Down seven and inside the 40 yard line, Mike Hartline threw a bad pass on 3rd and 2, causing a key 4th down. Instead of giving his Seniors a chance at redemption, he punted the ball away, a recipe for disaster. A punt at best pins UT back, but more likely than not ends up in exactly what happened…a touchback that gets 18 total net yards. Two plays later, UT reversed whatever benefit was gained, drove for a FG and the game was generally over.
Joker Phillips can get it done at UK. But he cant get it done acting like he is at Alabama or Florida. UK has to be the upstart aggressor to make noise in the SEC. Joker gets that off the field, where he recruits in a different way and brings in athletes that can make competitive. But he doesnt get it on the field and too often doesnt put UK in a position to pull off the big wins. Today was just another example.