LEXINGTON, Ky. - This is a tough time of year for Kentucky beat writers. They're still covering a football team, albeit one that's struggling, but many of their readers have long since moved on to basketball - which just started practice.
Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal is one of the many media members in the bluegrass who is pulling double-duty these days, but he's on top of the football situation. So we check in with Kyle this week to take his pulse on the Georgia-Kentucky game.
You can read Kyle's blog at: http://blogs.courier-journal.com/ukbeat .... and follow him on Twitter at @KyleTucker_CJ.
1. So this is a night game. Any chance it helps attendance, or will there be a half-empty stadium anyway?
KT: Help is relative. It will help, in that if this was a noon game, with Keeneland in the middle of its fall meet (horse racing, for the uninitiated), there would be approximately no people at the football game. That was the case two weeks ago and UK posted its third sub-50,000 crowd (stadium holds about 70,000) in four home games. It’s worth noting that the other two small crowds weren’t the result of competing with the ponies. Also of note: there hadn’t been a single sub-50,000 crowd since 1996 before this season. So, yeah, it’s getting ugly.
2. I'll dispense with the Joker Phillips question quickly. How much is his job status affecting the team and/or coaches? Is there any rallying around Joker, or is it almost being treated as a fait accompli?
KT: For his part, Phillips remains really positive. He cracks jokes and keeping it light when he meets with the media. Who knows what he’s really thinking behind closed doors. Same for the players, but everybody still seems to be in pretty good spirits for a 1-6 team. I think that has a lot to do with the “what can we do about it?” sense on this team. They’ve been decimated by injury and, thanks also to attrition in the upper classes, are playing more young guys than just about anyone in the country. Seems like most of the coaches and players realize the team’s failings this fall have not been purely about poor play and coaching, so they press on and hope to grow up and get healthier down the stretch. Also, as some of the veterans have put it, there are so many rookies out there that they don’t know any better but to keep playing hard and trying to impress.
3. Kentucky's secondary is so young - and the defense in general is so young - that many are expecting Georgia's offense to regain its form after being shut down in Lexington. Is there much defensively for the Wildcats to feel good about?
KT: There was some potentially good news for the defense, which finished last week’s evisceration at Arkansas with four true freshmen playing in the secondary. The Cats will get back senior corner Cartier Rice (ankle) and sophomore strong safety Ashely Lowery (concussion) this weekend, and there’s faint hope that senior free safety Martavius Neloms (hamstring) could come back. The defensive line is the one really veteran group for UK and it has played pretty well, but that gets lost because the linebackers have struggled and the secondary has been a mess. So I’m not sure the staff would say they feel “good” about anything on that side of the ball.
4. The quarterback situation: Latest we've seen is that freshman Jalen Whitlow and senior Morgan Newton are both likely to play. Does Whitlow's running ability give Kentucky a chance to continue some drives and keep things interesting, or is he still too raw as a passer to overcome that?
KT: Whitlow is really, really fast. He’s a guy who might be quite a weapon if he were a change-of-pace option, used like a Randall Cobb, in addition to injured QB Maxwell Smith. But he’s not. Because of injury, he’s the every-down QB and he’s limited. He completed just two passes last week. With Smith at quarterback, UK averaged 34 completions per game through three games. Since he went down, the Cats have 40 total completions in four games. Unless Whitlow makes a dramatic improvement in a week, or the coaches scrap that plan and Morgan Newton is miraculously much better than he was last season (or in relief at Florida this year, when he threw three second-quarter picks), it’s hard to see Kentucky having any success through the air against a defense like this.
5. For all of Kentucky's troubles, it did have a first-half lead against South Carolina. What did the Wildcats do right over those 30 minutes, and why wasn't it built on in subsequent games?
KT: That remains a mystery. I think for one, USC’s defensive coordinator said it only prepared for Max Smith at QB. He’s a purely pocket passer. When Whitlow came in and started scrambling, it caught the Gamecocks off guard. Also, UK played its best half of defense in that game (the group was still pretty much intact at that point). But the team that was outscored 31-0 after halftime looked a lot more like what we’ve seen the rest of this season.
6. Kentucky is a four-touchdown underdog. Loaded question: Does that sound about right to you, or too much, or too little? And what does Kentucky have to do to be in this game?
KT: Recent history tells us that is exactly right. The Cats have lost their four SEC games this season by an average margin of 28.5. They’ve been outscored 152-38. Dating back to last season, UK has lost 10 of 12 SEC games with the defeats coming by an average margin of 28.2 points. So, yeah, four touchdowns is probably on the money. How does Joker and Co. stay in this one? Run the ball a lot and effectively and pray. I just don’t see how the offense can move it against such a loaded UGA defense, and even if the secondary solidifies for UK, how will one of the nation’s worst run defenses stop Gurley and Marshall?