Q&A: UK reporters talk Wildcats, Toppers

Brad Stephens

Kentucky and WKU will meet for the fourth-ever time on the gridiron this Saturday at 6 p.m. CDT in Lexington’s Commonwealth Stadium.

The Herald talked with three UK football beat reporters, Ben Jones of CatsIllustrated.com, Keith Taylor of the Winchester Sun and Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal, to get their thoughts on Saturday’s game and to see and what the game means for UK and its fans.

Herald: What’s the mood for football like in Lexington right now?

Ben Jones: I don’t think a lot has happened in the first two games to change what the fan base thinks. Kentucky was supposed to lose its first game, which it did, and supposed to win its second game, which it did. There’s some optimism after seeing the offense early on, but most people that think the team won’t make a bowl game still feel that way. I don’t expect the mood will change until there’s an idea of whether the team will be more competitive in the SEC than it was last year.

Keith Taylor: After they won last week it seems better this week. But I think people are taking a “wait and see” approach. The crowd wasn’t very big at Commonwealth on Saturday but I think that might’ve had a lot to do with the weather forecast. I think it’s more of a wait and see what happens the next couple of games but it’s a little bit more down than I’ve seen in the last few years.

Kyle Tucker: If you’d asked me that before the Kent State game, directly after the Louisville game, and at the Kent State game looking at the crowd, I would’ve said really, really bad. And it’s still bad. The word apathy, I think, is probably correct.

I think there may be a little blip of life and excitement the way the offense has been playing. They showed a little bit at Louisville and then they go wild a little bit at Kent State, so I think the offense does get people excited but the defense looks like it’s bad. That was the worst home crowd of any kind since 1996, the worst for a home opener since 1988.

I think they need to win handily. They need to beat Western Kentucky. They have to beat them. If they beat them soundly and have another good offensive day I think it’ll get some more people excited. The trouble is I think it’s going to take a couple or three of those in a row to get people into it again. And even if they get a second one this week they’ve got to go on the road and play at Florida and that momentum could be lost by the time they come home and they’re playing a Top 10 South Carolina team that nobody thinks they’re going to beat.

Herald: What surprised you about Kentucky’s first two games?

Jones: The offense has been better than I expected. The defense has been worse. With nearly every contributor at the skill positions returning, we figured the offense wouldn’t be as terrible as it was last year. The defense, which was the strength of the program in 2011, wasn’t expected to fall off this far. If the young defensive players can grow and mature during the season, things could become very interesting. Otherwise, it might be another long season.

Taylor: I knew the offense was going to be pretty good but what’s surprised me is that the defense is as far behind as it is. You want your defense to be at least even-par and I think this defense is a little below-par. That’s been a surprise to me. I would think the defense should be better than what it has been.

Tucker: I thought the defense would not be as good this year because of some of the talent they lost, losing prolific starters like Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy. I thought they’d take a step back but I was really surprised how bad it was, how dramatic it was.  There were so many plays where guys weren’t even touched. There were ballcarriers running wide open and nobody gets a hand on them all the way to the end zone. That was pretty surprising and it even surprised the staff.

Now there’s all this buzz with the online report that Rick Minter and Joker got into it on the sideline at Louisville and they were strained. Both of those guys denied that this week but certainly there’s some real tension about the defense. All of a sudden they’re moving guys around. They’ve got Bud Dupree, who they talked about like he was going to be a star coming off the edge, all of a sudden, as a true sophomore, before he’s really had a chance to get started this season at that position they moved him to weakside linebacker because they’re just so bad at that position. When you’re juggling personnel and playing guys in places they’ve never played before three weeks into the season, it’s certainly an alarm bell. As much as anything that’s probably the biggest surprise is how bad it’s been on defense.

On the other side, certainly a little bit surprised about how good they’ve been on offense. I thought they’d be a little bit better this year because they couldn’t get much worse than last season, but they’re dramatically better. They look like a good, potent, dangerous offense.

Herald: Is Maxwell Smith the long-term answer at quarterback, or is there not a large enough sample size?

Jones: He looks like the long-term answer. Andre Woodson, now a graduate assistant, says he thinks Smith is going to break all kinds of records at UK. There was a lot of buzz surrounding true freshman Patrick Towles when he arrived and many expected him to win the job at some point during the season. It now appears Towles will redshirt, though. Meanwhile, Smith is tied for third in the country in touchdown passes, is fourth in in completions, eighth in yards and 16th in completion percentage. Head coach Joker Phillips said on Wednesday that Smith can feel very comfortable about his position because of the way he’s played.

Taylor: I think he’s the guy. I think he’s really a competitor. The thing I like about him is that he handles the no-huddle really well. The no-huddle you’ve got to speed up the game and be in tune and he hasn’t been a stranger to it. He’s really liked it and it fits their scheme.

Tucker: I think it could be too early but he’s started now five starts and he compares very favorably with Andre Woodson, Jared Lorenzen and Tim Couch after their first five starts. Through five starts he’s at 61 percent, about 1,200 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. The only better touchdown-to-interception ratio after five starts was Tim Couch who was at 15 touchdowns and three picks, so he’s right there.

Probably the most eye-catching thing that was said to me this week was Andre Woodson, who holds a lot UK records himself and is now an offensive GA, said he’s going to set a lot of offensive records and he’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks to play here.

To me, that doesn’t sound like anyone on the staff thinks he’s a one-year stopgap until Patrick Towles takes over. It sounds like he can be the guy that keeps Patrick Towles on the shelf for awhile.

Herald: How has the no huddle changed UK’s offensive culture?

Jones: The offense will look completely different than it did a year ago. Last year’s team was more conservative, relying on runs to slowly move the ball down the field as the Wildcats played the field position game. Kentucky doesn’t take a lot of shots downfield, but they’ll complete passes of seven or eight yards until they break one for 20. This isn’t a no-huddle where the offense reaches the line, reads the defense and calls a play. It’s a hurry-up offense catered specifically to Smith’s skills. He had 50 attempts against Louisville and 39 against Kent State, with 13 different receivers catching a pass already this season.

Taylor: Having Max at the quarterback position (has helped). They’ve also had three or four wide receivers step up. You look at last week’s game, Aaron Boyd, a senior, he stepped up and had a good game. They’ve got capable receivers that are catching the ball, that’s been the biggest difference from last year to this year.

Tucker: Last year’s offense was really reactionary. They were always the ones being attacked, it seemed like. This offense really puts them on the attack. They line up and they snap it as quick as they can. It can catch defenses on their heels where they’re not able to get fully aligned, make adjustments or make substitutions.

Some of the offensive linemen say they look across and see some of the defense bent over holding their hands on their knees, breathing hard and not coming off the ball as hard.

They’re averaging 2.9 snaps per minute of possession time. That’s on par with Oregon from last season and when you think Oregon you think breakneck speed.

I think it’s really made a difference giving them an advantage because if you’re not going to line up and manhandle individual matchups, manhandle people across the board, then you need to have a schematic advantage. By going faster it seems to certainly have given them an edge. They do have an energy about them, they prepared all summer, they committed to this thing early. They conditioned their linemen and all their skill players to be able to handle this. It seems like they’re in shape for it. Their five starting linemen played all 70 snaps against Louisville and played most of them until the game got out of hand against Kent State.

Herald: How do UK fans look back upon last year’s UK-WKU game?

Jones: It was the moment many of them knew something wasn’t right with Kentucky’s program. Some weren’t pleased with the 6-7 campaign the year before, but Phillips spoke really highly of his team before the 2011 season. When Kentucky came out and only put up 190 yards of offense against Western, it was obvious that the offense had problems. That held true throughout the year. In many ways, Phillips is still trying to win back the trust of people that he lost after that one game.

Taylor: I think they were disappointed. Traditionally, if UK is playing Eastern or Western or Murray, they’re not expecting a close game. When they got into a close game last year with the Hilltoppers I think it took them by surprise. If you look at their records against those teams, I think they’re 3-0 against Western, 3-0 against Eastern and 3-0 against Murray. They haven’t lost to these other state schools. I think it’s great they play Kentucky. I think Kentucky fans pretty much expect what happened against Kent State last week. That’s their expectation. That’s not fair to Western by any means, but that’s what fans see when they play another state school.

Tucker: In many ways it set the tone, the wrong kind of tone, but it set the tone for that whole season. For the offense, it was just a total disappointment. They talked so much during the offseason about how much better Morgan Newton was and that he was night and day different from the year before and he was ready to lead. He comes out and the lasting image of that game on Kentucky’s side was taking a snap, tripping over his own guy’s feet and falling straight on his butt. That really set a tone for the season that it was going to be a long one and that’s what it turned out to be.

There wasn’t anything satisfying about the win for anybody. Joker and some of his staff tried to say “a win is a win” but I think everybody knew they were in trouble. They’re eager to show that they’re not that same team. The problem is they’re not on offense but they might be worse on defense.

They forced those four interceptions on defense but they also let a couple of guys run wide open. If Jakes was more accurate last year, I think Western Kentucky could’ve and maybe even should’ve won that game. One was just egregious, the guy didn’t have anyone within 20 yards of him and Jakes couldn’t hit him. I think they remember that, I think they remember how close it was on the scoreboard and how close they were to getting beat.

Everyone is very aware of “they s’posed to be SEC” and that’s a quote that will sort of live in infamy. I don’t know if it gets any better than that if you’re Kentucky’s staff and you’re looking for bulletin board material. That’s a big insult. They play in the best league in the country and sort of made a mockery with the way they played and what Jackson said into the camera. It sort of made a mockery that they might be in the best league but they’re probably the worst team in that league so I think they have a lot to improve.

Herald: How do UK fans view WKU as a program?

Jones: That’s a tough question to answer, because the program has only recently been playing Division I football since 2008. Kentucky fans certainly don’t feel a sense of rivalry with WKU like they do with Louisville. For the most part, the programs don’t recruit against each other even. But if the Hilltoppers can be as competitive against UK this year as they were last year, people will start to take them more seriously.

Taylor: I think they’ve got more respect for Western. After what happened last year, I’d think they’d approach the game differently. Now they think “these guys can play football.” Just look what happened last week against Alabama. 35-0? I would take that against Alabama if I was Western. I don’t think UK will take the Hilltoppers lightly.

Tucker: Kentucky fans are certainly aware that this is a good Western Kentucky team this year and a team that’s going to present a real challenge. Program-wise there’s probably some of that big brother, little brother thing and that superiority complex.

It didn’t help Western Kentucky’s cause when its own coach said Kentucky fans go there because they couldn’t get into UK. There’s some UK fans that buy into that mentality that academically that might be the case or that athletically those kids are playing there because they couldn’t play at Kentucky. When you’re talking about bulletin board material on the other side, that chip on the shoulder is probably a good thing.

Herald: Who are two or three players, other than Maxwell Smith, that could make big plays for UK on Saturday?

Jones: Aaron Boyd was left for dead entering the season as a fifth year senior, but was a revelation against Kent State. He more than doubled all his career stats with 11 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown and will start again this week. There hasn’t been a replacement for Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy on defense, but Avery Williamson is the most solid player there. The WKU game a year ago was a tour de force for senior punter Ryan Tydlacka and his replacement, true freshman Landon Foster, has been just as impressive so far this year.

Taylor: Raymond Sanders can be a bright spot at the running back position. He’s had some nice runs this year and I think he’s poised to do some big things. I like Boyd. E.J. Fields, the receiver, had a couple of nice catches. La’Rod King can do good things as well. Offensively those guys stand out.

Defensively, they’re expecting a big game out of Bud Dupree. He had a lot of hype coming into college but he hasn’t really lived up to those expectations yet. Maybe Saturday could be a chance for him to do that.

Tucker: One to keep an eye on is Bud Dupree. He’s the guy that they talked about all preseason. He’s 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. They say he’s a great athlete, Joker Phillips said he’s going to be the next elite player for them. He was playing the rush-backer, sort of a hybrid linebacker-defensive end. They thought he was going to be a guy that got after the passer a lot. He said in the preseason that he wanted to have two sacks a game.

He didn’t have a ton of success early in that Louisville game and then they were so bad at their weakside linebacker spot, which is the spot Danny Trevathan left behind, that it’s been an emergency move to move Bud Dupree to weakside linebacker. He had about three days to get ready and he played pretty well there. Now he’s had another week.

He’s still going to be that guy. They’ve also elevated true freshman Khaled Henderson who they think is sort of the next Danny Trevathan. He’s a true freshman but he wears the same number, 22, as Danny Trevathan and he’s come on because they’ve elevated him past those guys that were there before. He’s passed Bud Dupree. There’ll be some times where they slide Dupree back to his old spot and they give Henderson a look and see what he can do. Dupree, whether he can be a playmaker for them at weakside linebacker, or however snaps he plays at rush backer, he’s the best athlete they have on defense right now and he’s got to be a guy that makes some plays if the defense is going to get any better.

Offensively, it’s hard to pick a wide receiver because Max Smith has completed passes to 13 different guys in two games. La’Rod King is the most consistent guy. He hasn’t been real flashy, really at all in his career but it seems like all last season and early this year you can mark him down for six to eight catches for 70 to 90 yards and a touchdown.

Herald: Would a loss to WKU be the end for Joker Phillips?

Jones: Barring a major turnaround in SEC play, probably. Losing to Louisville is one thing, but dropping a game to WKU would create a huge stir among the fan base. Many feel Phillips could survive another losing season as long as he doesn’t lose one of the three nonconference games that fans pencil in as wins every year. Another showing like last year’s WKU game could be almost as damaging, though. Kentucky is supposed to be SEC, after all.

Taylor: I think that wouldn’t be good. I think the fans are kind of lukewarm right now and if he loses to Western that could turn out to be cold. If Western beats UK on Saturday it may not be the end but it could be the beginning of the end.

Tucker: Yes. Maybe not immediately, I don’t think Mitch Barnhart’s the kind of guy that would can him on the spot but I think it would be pretty disastrous for Joker Phillips’ hopes of continuing on as the Kentucky head coach. And as much as it being one embarrassing result, I think it would sort of signal disaster coming for the rest of the season. I think that win means you’re going to win maybe three games, maybe two games. I think Joker Phillips can survive maybe 5-7, if they look better in some losses, if they show improvement.

But a 3-9 season, a 2-10 season, can he survive that? I don’t know. If they lose to Western Kentucky, that’s what they’re headed for. Compounded with the idea that that’s one real ugly loss that’s also the beginning of a real ugly slide, I would think a loss would mean ultimately, by the end of 2012, you wouldn’t see Joker Phillips.

Herald: Any predictions for the game?

Jones: I’m notoriously awful at predictions. Kentucky 41, Western Kentucky 28 sounds about right, though. At the very least, it should be more fun to watch than last year’s season opener.

Taylor: I think it’ll be similar to last year but again, when you look at UK’s offense compared this year to last year, they’ve got a few more weapons. I think it’ll be like a 32-17 Kentucky win. But I think Western’s defense will give UK a challenge more than Kent State did.

Tucker: I think Western Kentucky is better than they were a year ago and I think they’re going to score points. They’re a much different offense than what Kentucky faced last week. Alabama wants to line up and manhandle you. Western Kentucky obviously sold out, stopped the run and did a good job, was beaten over the top on some passes.

Kentucky’s a totally different animal. They’re going to spread it out, go no-huddle, they’re going to go fast, fast, fast, they’re going to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. They’re not going to get sacked six times because he’s not going to hold onto the ball long enough for that to happen.

Kentucky’s going to score points, I think Western Kentucky is going to score points too because Kentucky’s defense is not very good.

I think Kentucky will win relatively comfortably. I don’t necessarily think they’re going to rout them like the Kent State game, but I think it should be a two-touchdown win for Kentucky. If it’s not, as you alluded to earlier it’s probably trouble for UK and potentially trouble for Joker.