LEXINGTON — His best receivers dropped too many passes, his starting defense didn’t make as many plays as possibly expected and there were other mental mistakes that Kentucky coach Joker Phillips did not like.
Still, when Saturday’s Blue-White Game ended with the Blue (second and third teams) winning 31-28 on a 38-yard Joe Mansour field goal with 47 seconds to play (and after being spotted a 14-0 lead to start the game), Phillips had far loftier expectations for the season than most others will have.
Remember, Kentucky is coming off a 6-7 season and lost playmakers Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews off an offense that was responsible for most of the six wins. Kentucky’s recruiting class, while highly touted by Phillips, was also rated near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.
Yet Phillips didn’t want to talk about going to a sixth straight bowl game or a winning season after the Blue-White Game ended spring practice. Instead, he wanted to talk about a SEC championship, something that seems more elusive than a stretch of sunny days in Kentucky now.
“I expect us to be in the title race longer than we have been. We have to talk titles. I do not want to talk about going to six straight (bowls),” said Phillips. “How long can we stay in the title race? Our guys have to believe that, too. We have a chance to stay in this race for a long time.”
Maybe, but only if Kentucky can find a way to stop the run with an undersized defensive line, stop giving up the big plays that haunted the offense last year and find a consistent offense to score against SEC defenses.
Just don’t tell Phillips about the obstacles. He’s dreaming big and wants his players doing the same even if preseason predictions put Kentucky near the bottom of the SEC Eastern Division or fans grumble that the program could have its streak of bowl appearances stopped.
“Why not us? I truly believe it. Why not us? I truly mean that,” Phillips said. “I might get blasted for saying it. But why not us? I believe it. I believe we can stay in title race longer than ever.”
Why and how? That’s what Kentucky fans want to know after the way the Cats ended last season with disappointing losses to Tennessee and Pittsburgh, two good but not great teams that easily handled Kentucky.
“We have to be consistent in our play, fundamentally sound and one of the toughest teams ever on the field,” Phillips said. “We talked about being tough last year. Our kids did not understand. They think toughness means with your mouth. We got the message across different this year. Retaliation is not toughness.”
No it is not. Mouthing is not. Toughness is being able to block and tackle to control the line of scrimmage. Toughness is getting off the field defensively on third-down plays, or converting those same third-down chances on offense. Toughness is finding a way to win close games like Kentucky did in 2009.
Quarterback Morgan Newton was not sensational Saturday, but he’s improved. He threw a nifty sideline route to Matt Roark, where he dropped the ball over his shoulder for a 38-yard game. He rifled passes into the middle of the field. He had a better touch on more short passes.
Running backs Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George both ran well. George had a 70-yard scoring run negated by a holding call. Sanders scored on a 28-yard run. While neither has the blazing speed of Locke, both might be better inside runners.
However, the top receivers dropped at least seven passes, including three by Roark. LaRod King, expected to be Kentucky’s No. 1 receiver, had only two catches for 25 yards. Kentucky’s top tight ends did not have a catch.
And the offensive line, expected to be Kentucky’s strength, gave up three sacks — including one on the game’s second play — to the Cats’ backup defensive line.
The starting defense was okay, but not overpowering. Backup quarterback Maxwell Smith was 10-for-21 passing for 99 yards, but did hit a 54-yard bomb to E.J. Fields.
On special teams, Winston Guy fumbled a punt and Martavius Neloms flat whiffed when trying to catch another punt.
But again, Phillips was more optimistic from what he saw.
“On defense our goal was to create more turnovers and more negative yard plays. Our defense attacking and always on edge,” Phillips said. “We have some speed on the perimeter with Winston Guy and Ridge Wilson. We came out of there being able to create some things we wanted to create.
“Our second team on both sides of the ball, I was really pleased with the way they competed. That only helps our depth. I think we have a good first 22 (starters), but we need depth. The way they (the second team) competed says we have a chance for more depth on this team.”
And if Kentucky is going to compete for that title Phillips envisions, that is a necessity, along with improved play in a lot of other areas, based on what the Cats did here Saturday.