Late bye gives Cats more than headaches



When the UK football schedule was released, most fans likely glossed over this weekend’s game against Charleston Southern and checked it off as a win before examining the last two games of the season against Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

Charleston Southern’s resume as an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) opponent does little to dispel the notion that it was scheduled as anything other than a probable win to boost the Cats’ bowl chances. The Buccaneers (2-6, 0-4 Big South) are on a five-game losing streak. Their only wins this season have come against North Greenville University (in Tigerville, S.C.) and Mars Hill College (enrollment 1,237).

But as valuable as a win would be, the real value in the game might be a break for the team. The Cats (4-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) have played nine straight games, including six straight in the SEC. Their only bye week comes just before the final game of the season. Several players are nursing nagging aches and pains.

“Everybody’s whipped a little bit,” UK head coach Joker Phillips said. “We’ve been through a grueling six-game stretch but you couldn’t tell it by the effort they gave us (in practice) today.”

Last season, with its bye week after the first game, UK scheduled Eastern Kentucky late in the season to break up the SEC schedule and give the Cats some key time to recover before their last three games. Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb both sat the 37-12 win out with injuries before returning to finish out the season.

Locke has missed the last three games, but returned to practice Tuesday, wearing a red “no contact” jersey. Locke was unavailable to speak to the media, and is still considered day-to-day. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline said Locke will probably be able to play Saturday, but could still sit out to make sure he’s entirely healthy for the rest of the season.

“No disrespect to the team we’re playing, but obviously we’re looking forward to finishing out the rest of the conference schedule,” Hartline said.

Senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said every program in the country has players with nagging aches and pains by this time of year, but the Cats have fewer players missing time with serious injuries than before because of strength coach Rock Oliver, who joined the program after Phillips took over in January.

“Guys are beat up,” Lumpkin said. “It’s just mental. If you can push through it, you have to push through it and fight through it.”

Having an oddly-timed bye week can make for a challenging stretch of the season, and scheduling an opponent like Charleston Southern can relieve some of the pressure. In a perfect situation, Hartline said, he’d like to see some schedule tweaks, but he thinks the Cats will be able to find motivation without any issues.

“Maybe I’d like to see a bye week earlier in the season, but this is good,” Hartline said. “You have one of these games like this, it really tests your true colors and how your team finishes a season with adversity. There have been a lot of upsets this year with college football with smaller teams beating bigger teams. It’s not necessarily an easy road.”