On Military Appreciation Day at Commonwealth Stadium, it took the Cats all four quarters to take another step forward in Operation Win.
After allowing Charleston Southern (2-7, 0-4 Big South) to tie the game 7-7 and 14-14 in the first half, the Cats pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 49-21. It wasn’t quite the start UK head coach Joker Phillips expected against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
“You felt like you had control, but you didn’t have control,” Phillips said. “When you looked at the scoreboard, it didn’t say it.”
The Cats (5-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) turned the ball over three times; on an interception, a fumble, and while going for it on fourth down in the first half near midfield. Those turnovers kept the Buccaneers alive and kept UK’s backups off the field until late in the game. Charleston Southern controlled the clock for 40 minutes to UK’s 20 minutes.
“One thing we talked about is playing clean,” Phillips said. “We did not play clean.”
With senior tailback Derrick Locke sitting out his fourth straight game, sophomore tailbacks CoShik Williams and Donald Russell broke out, combining for 205 yards and five touchdowns on 23 carries. Locke had been cleared to play, but chose to not to.
“(Running backs) Coach (Larry) Brinson told us that we all have to stay mentally ready,” Williams said. “We had two guys down, so we had to have two guys step up.”
Williams and Russell paced the offense, which finished with 502 yards without a single snap taken in the Wildcat formation. The Bucs caught the Cats by surprise, debuting their own version of the Wildcat, featuring true freshman wide receiver Malcom Dixon. He finished with 19 carries for 96 yards while completing seven of eight passes for 45 yards.
The Cats moved to within one win of becoming bowl eligible with the victory and have won 19 straight regular season nonconference games. After stumbling through the middle of their schedule, Phillips said the Cats were looking for a way to regain energy for the final games of the season.
“We need this momentum,” Phillips said. “We need this feeling. We’ve been in this locker room for five out of the last six weeks and we haven’t had this feeling. I think this is the momentum that we need to carry us through the rest of the season.”