Cats rally around Phillips, seniors for 34-3 senior day win

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Jalen Whitlow (13) makes a touchdown during the first half of the UK Football game v. Samford at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, November 17, 2012. Photo by Genevieve Adams | Staff

By Ethan Levine

elevine@kykernel.com

On an emotional day for the entire football program, UK defeated Samford 34-3.

It was the Cats’ first win since Sep. 8, their first home game of the year. In its final home game of 2012, UK  gave its senior class and departing head coach a reason to celebrate.

“All of it touches you because it’s such an emotional time,” Phillips said. “This is a game of emotion, it is, and you get to see some of those emotions come out when a kid is getting ready to play his last game.”

UK jumped out to an early lead over the Bulldogs behind a strong run game. Running backs Raymond Sanders, Jonathan George and DyShawn Mobley combined for 289 yards on 48 carries, scoring one touchdown on the evening. Freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow contributed 60 yards on the ground on seven carries, rushing for a touchdown of his own in the first quarter.

“Our running backs did a great job of hitting the holes we were trying to open for them and reading things, cutting back when they needed to,” senior center Matt Smith said of the running backs. “A lot of that was on them and they had some guys that were reaching out to arm tackle them.”

Whitlow and fellow freshman quarterback Patrick Towles combined to complete 14-19 passes for 113 yards against the Bulldogs’ secondary. Whitlow hit senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill on a post route in the end zone on the opening drive of the game, giving the Cats a lead they would never relinquish. McCaskill and fellow senior wide receivers Aaron Boyd and La’Rod King combined for seven of UK’s 14 completions for 76 yards receiving and the McCaskill touchdown

“I think the touchdown to Gene (McCaskill), it just happened like that,” Whitlow said. “It was just in the game, you run the perfect game through the perfect coverage.”

The Cats’ young defense had its best performance of the season against the Bulldogs, limiting the opposing offense to just 102 total yards for the game. It was the first time all season UK has kept its opponent out of the end zone for an entire game. The Cats recorded five sacks (two by middle linebacker Avery Williamson) and eight tackles for loss against the Bulldogs, stalling numerous drives and helping UK to a major edge in time of possession.

Late in the second quarter, with UK already leading 24-3, defensive tackle Donte Rumph forced an Andy Summerlin fumble that fellow defensive tackle Tristian Johnson scooped up and ran back for a 25-yard touchdown. It was UK’s first defensive touchdown of the season.

In his final game coaching in Commonwealth Stadium, Phillips showed he was willing to take a few risks and try a few new things. He called for an onside kick in the second quarter following a UK touchdown, threw a screen pass to offensive tackle Darrian Miller, lined left guard Larry Warford up at fullback and allowed Sanders to take a direct snap out of the backfield.

“I’m trying to get something figured out, where I snap it to him and he puts it on the ground and puts it through my legs or something, its tough for a center, were trying to figure something out with coach this week,” Smith said.

Sometimes the trickery worked. Other times it didn’t. But for 60 minutes fans were assured that Phillips and his team, led by its seniors, hadn’t given up on the season just yet.

“It would be great because no class has done it, no team has done it two years in a row so us coming out and doing that and getting a win against Tennessee in their house, that would be huge and that would send these seniors out with something great to remember,” Williamson said.

Following the victory, UK’s third consecutive senior day victory under Phillips, the Cats’ head coach was carried off the field for his final departure from Commonwealth Stadium.

When asked if he was happy with his decision to coach out the remainder of the season and share in the win with the senior class, Phillips responded “I’m glad I was able to experience that with the seniors, yes.”

Phillips and the Cats finish their season next Saturday with a trip to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. Last year, UK concluded its season with its first victory over Tennessee in 26 years. Next week, the Cats and Volunteers will square off in a battle of winless conference records, and Phillips will look to end his tenure at UK with another win over the Vols.

“We want to finish this thing out strong and win the last two, give the seniors a chance to go out the right way,” Phillips said.