NASHVILLE — A team that has been to five straight bowl games and aspires to play in an even higher level bowl this season does not rebuild when it loses key players. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Kentucky didn’t go into Thursday’s season-opening game with Western Kentucky Thursday sounding like this was a rebuilding year, either. Instead, it was going to be more of a remodeling season where the pieces were shifted around to produce an even better look.
Oops. It didn’t exactly look that way, especially at halftime of the eventual 14-3 win when UK was lucky to have a 7-3 lead despite having all of 35 total offensive yards — and 14 of that came on the one touchdown run by true freshman Josh Clemons.
“Western Kentucky was a physical team and really did a good job stopping our offense,” said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips after his team was limited to 190 yards by a team that won only two games last season.
Phillips said he was expecting UK¿to score more and look sharper.
“This was not anywhere near what I expected,” Phillips said. “But seldom has there been a situation where we played as bad as we did and still won.”
That’s stretching for a positive, but it was that kind of game for the Wildcats who did little to inspire the UK¿fans in the crowd 24,599 or those who might have managed to stay up until nearly 1 a.m. to watch the finish.
“We just never got anything going,” UK¿quarterback Morgan Newton said. “There were just a lot of things that were not right.”
Say amen Big Blue faithful and hope those mistakes can be corrected or this remodeling project is going to be a dismal failure and require total reconstruction in 2012. Here’s a look at how the remodeling went:
n Quarterback: Newton for Mike Hartline.
With Hartline as the starter, UK¿scored 63 points in Lexington last year. On Thursday night, Newton was 7-for-18 passing for only 97 yards with three interceptions and a 31-yard scoring pass to LaRod King. Newton also did break a 58-yard run, but he was sacked three times, seemed unsure of himself in the pocket at times and did overthrow several open receivers.
Teammates didn’t help him, though, as receivers dropped passes that could have been big plays for UK¿and Newton.
“He made two big plays (the TD pass and run). We call those game-altering plays,” Phillips said. “He could have had two more (if balls had been caught). We’ve got to make those. If we do, Morgan would have looked better.”
Newton wouldn’t offer an exact evaluation of his play because he said he needed to watch game tape first.
“We did not play as well as we wanted,” he said. “There are so many things we have to get corrected. We’ve got to get a rhythm. We’ve got to fight through this and get better.”
Running back: Raymond Sanders/Josh Clemons for Derrick Locke.
Locke was UK’s leading rusher and a home-run threat the last two years. Sanders, a sophomore, got the start and ran 13 painful times for 35 yards because he was hit often and seldom had any holes even though UK¿has touted its offensive line — which was without starting center Matt Smith due to injury — as a team strength.
Clemons, a true freshman, had 39 yards on 11 carries and showed the powerful, quick bursts that have teammates excited.
Phillips had hoped to play more backs, but because of UK’s limited opportunities — the Cats had 51 plays to Western’s 69 — he stuck with Sanders and Clemons.
“I¿felt the young kid (Clemons) was seeing things well, so we decided to just go with two (backs). They weren’t tired,” Phillips said.
Clemons said he was excited to score, but knew the team had to do better.
“We got a win, but no one is really happy,” Clemons said.
Receiver: Everyone for Randall Cobb/Chris Matthews.
The Kentucky receivers dropped so many catchable balls, especially in the first half, that junior E.J. Fields, who was suspended for the game for violation of a team rule going back to last season, may have moved up on the depth chart by not playing. It was that bad.
“I was very disappointed. We’ve got to make plays,” Phillips said. “There were a couple of big plays we left out there. We’ve got to block better. It was not the young guys. It was the older guys.”
Tight end Jordan Aumiller dropped a pass on UK’s second play. Gene McCaskill fell and Newton’s pass was picked off on UK’s second series. Matt Roark dropped a pass on the third series. Both Roark and LaRod King dropped potential 50-yard plus passes.
“We were crappy,” King said. “No excuses. Just crappy.”
Defensive coordinator: Rick Minter for Steve Brown.
This part of the remodeling plan worked much better or UK¿would not have won. The Cats survived three turnovers to limit Western to 234 yards and held Western star running back Bobby Rainey to 105 yards on 28 carries, an average of 3.8 per carry. That’s 79 less yards than he got last season and his longest run was only 10 yards.
UK¿also picked off four passes, including two by new hybrid linebacker Winston Guy, and had five tackles for loss as Minter delivered a more aggressive, blitzing defense just as promised.
Western, though, several times had receivers open for scoring catches only to have quarterback Kawaun Jakes — 9-for-27 for 93 yards — overthrow them.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group of guys,”¿Minter said. “Kids came out of training camp with tired legs and it 95, 100 degrees here and the kids battled. I could not be more proud.
“Western is creative on offense, but our guys did a good job containing Rainey. But sometimes to win, you’ve got to be lucky. They did get behind us and fortunately for us they did not connect. It was not pretty at all.”
No, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was darn ugly, especially when one thinks about upcoming Southeastern Conference opponents. Kentucky needed a much better performance to stop the basketball buzz, increase the hype for the Louisville game in two weeks or, more importantly, bolster its own confidence.
At Kentucky, it’s hard not to be happy with any win.¿However, in spite of Phillips’ vow he was going to enjoy the victory, this was not a season-opening performance to inspire confidence that this remodeling effort is going to work.