COLUMN: Fans can respect Cats’ efforts, be hopeful for future

A team can only do so much to succeed when it’s playing the No. 8 football team in the nation. Saturday, UK did all it could.

The Cats played top-25-type football against the second-best program they face this season, but the clock struck zero before they had a chance to complete their comeback. The thought between fans, players and coaches alike: “We just ran out of time.” It’s that simple.

Despite the final tally displaying Auburn ahead by three points, everyone, including head coach Joker Phillips, knew UK competed as tough it could when it was asked to do so.

“My heart aches for these guys. They played their hearts out,” Phillips said. “We asked them to come in and prepare like champions… and we got there. Our guys played hard, played inspired, played with emotion… I asked them to leave everything on the field and they did it.”

Phillips couldn’t say enough about his team postgame, and understandably so.

Admittedly, I don’t know what a scouting report looks like, but Auburn’s quarterback Cam Newton’s report likely noted (in bold) that he is kind of good. If UK paid more attention to that fact in the first half, it may have found itself the victor Saturday.

Both sides of the ball saw success for UK, especially its second-half defense. The team did a good job of containing the majority of the Tigers’ playmakers (except for Newton, of course), causing confusion in Auburn’s backfield and forcing fumbles in critical positions. But too few balls bounced the Cats’ way, and such is the game of football.

For the first time in a long time, fan support was booming for the home team. The chants, the cheering, the applause (and the not leaving early) — it was all perhaps the driving force behind the improved play of the Cats. Commonwealth Stadium will need to see the 70,000+ attendance number again next week if the Big Blue Nation wants to see similar success.

One burning question regards UK’s jovial play against the top-10 opponent it faced in Auburn in contrast to the relaxed efforts supporters saw against Florida and Ole Miss at times. The team periodically looked to be defeated before the final tick of the clock. The Cats seemed to lack consistency, but Saturday proved a bit of change for the hometown team.

The notion flowing between viewers was that Auburn would give the ball back to the Cats one way or another in the closing moments of Saturday’s contest. But the Tigers’ 19-play, 86-yard drive that consumed the final 7:22 of the game was too much for UK and its fans. It was simply good scheming by Auburn — the Cats could do nothing.

“There was not a doubt in my mind that we would get them stopped and our offense moving the ball,” Phillips said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win this game.”

The valiant effort in the loss leaves fans hopeful for the upcoming weeks, though. With South Carolina coming to Lexington next Saturday, the Cats will have another opportunity to play giant killers against the Gamecocks, though they will undoubtedly be buzzing after knocking off Alabama this weekend.

Win or no win, this week and next, it is clear UK is playing to prevail. The Cats are putting themselves through tougher workouts each week, and it is beginning to show. The pieces of the puzzle are coming together, and once the stars align (which they may next week), UK could be a dangerous team at a decisive point in the season.