Photo by Dr Michael Huang
I really wanted Sunday to go well. It wasn’t just because it was Kentucky and Louisville and the thought of losing to the Fighting Linebeards always makes me slightly sick to my stomach. But I mainly wanted Kentucky to play well for Joker Phillips and his future with the team. It is no secret that this season determines his future in Lexington. Because he only has one year left on his contract after this, Mitch Barnhart has one of only two choices at the end of the season…either extend Joker for two more years or replace him. You cannot leave a lame duck coach with no more years on his contract, because then he cannot recruit. Thus it is an all or nothing decision for Barnhart and there is no real room for error. At the beginning of the season, I made my stance clear. I want Joker Phillips to win six games, get this team to a bowl, continue his positive recruiting and take steps to winning back a fanbase that is desperate for success. Absent that, I wanted to see a team that left no doubt in everyone’s eye what the final decision should be. At the end of the year, I want a consensus…yes, Joker should stay or yes Joker should go. Another summer of discontent, with a split fanbase and no real clear vision for Kentucky football is the last thing anyone needs. So I went into Sunday’s game hoping that the Cats would come out, play great, get a win and put Joker Phillips on the right path to gaining a permanent fitted seat at the helm of the football program he loves so much.
And on Sunday, what did we get? We basically were left with a game that confirmed whatever viewpoint of the program the viewer had going into the game. If you were an optimist who believed that the program was ready to move in the right direction and take steps to improve on last year’s dismal performances, there was evidence to support your mindset. The offensive unit looked sharp most of the day and generally drove on Louisville at will. They scored 14 points, but it fairly can be said that they left at least 17 on the field due to two deep fumbles and a missed field goal. Yes, the offense included a lot of short dump offs, but you know what? They worked. The Cats were able to move the ball consistently and the no-huddle attack employed by Joker and Randy Sanders was effective.
However, if you are inclined towards pessimism on the Joker front, there was evidence for you as well. The defense was awful. Actually, scratch that. The defense was abysmal. There are very few adjectives that can adequately describe what watching a team mount three consecutive drives of 99, 85 and 93 yards against your team looks like. But whatever the worst of those is, it should definitely be used to explain the disaster in Papa Johns. It remains to be seen whether Teddy Bridgewater is a future superstar, but there is no question that Kentucky made him look like a Heisman candidate and soon-to-be first round NFL pick. Teddy went 19-21 and his two incompletions were due only to smart decision making by him. Kentucky had no answer for anything Louisville did on offense all day. And even worse from a fan’s point of view, they never made any adjustments, seemingly content to allow the faulty initial game plan play itself out. The athletes looked too slow, out of place and ill-coached to even suggest that a great deal of improvement could take place in the future, a thought that is quite depressing. Yes, Kentucky left 17 points on the field, but to be honest, Louisville probably left 21 out there of its own, as only Charlie Strong’s head-scratching decision to play Will Stein in the fourth quarter prevented the Cards from racking up 50.
So where do we go from here? At this point, I am still undecided on where this UK team’s destiny lies. Kentucky looks competitive and feisty on one side of the ball, while also looking miserable and despondent on the other. Will it get better? I honestly have no clue. In fact, all Sunday did was give both sides of the pro/anti-Joker forces evidence for whatever conclusion they already supported. Unfortunately for Joker however, those that are down on the program seem to be growing in volume, if not numbers. The situation reminds me of this line from a poem entitled “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
There is no moral superiority in either position on Joker Phillips and this UK football team. However those that believe change must be made in the future are becoming more certain in that belief. And Joker’s supporters, whose numbers are much larger than his detractors prefer to believe, are facing growing doubt/apathy that makes their position less strong. It is hard to hear loud voices that believe in the future of this program. As August rolled on, many of us took that position, whether motivated by our head or our heart, and hoped it would be true. Sunday didn’t give us any reason to totally throw in the towel, but it also didn’t elicit growing confidence either. The next three weeks will probably tell us little. Beating Kent State/Western or losing at Florida will be nothing new. But as we move towards the next two statement games (South Carolina and Georgia in Lexington), we unfortunately have little in the way of strong cause for optimism. Sunday showed you whatever you wanted to see and thus the most recent battle for the Governor’s Cup can best be described as a detour on the quest for clarity.