LEXINGTON, KY. (WDRB) -- The problem with a season like the one in which the University of Kentucky football program is mired is that everything gets caught up in a whirlwind of speculation. The Wildcats 38-17 loss to No. 6-ranked South Carolina Saturday night was their fourth straight, and when that happens, the games and players and even results become secondary to the larger question of where the coaching picture stands in light of those things.
It's a subject on the pregame show. The game starts, and the script is one UK fans are familiar with. Act 1 -- Show signs of hope. Act 2 -- Miss a key opportunity (foreshadowing). Act. 3 -- Fall behind and lose going away.
I appreciate that many fans are tired of that rerun. And I understand those who say a 21-point loss -- even to the No. 6 team in the nation -- doesn't earn this team or coach much slack.
But it's fair, also, to look at each game on its merits. And more than at any point since UK upset South Carolina here two years ago, the Wildcats looked like a legitimate Southeastern Conference football team in the first half Saturday night.
The defense stuffed the Gamecocks' heralded running game, with the exception of a few times that QB Conner Shaw got loose. It managed a goal-line stand early in the game. About the only real mistake was by a senior -- Martavius Neloms, who lost his man on a Shaw scramble to give up a long completion that led to South Carolina's first touchdown.
Offensively, the Wildcats running game was gashing one of the SEC's better defenses, and not just with running backs but with quarterback Jalen Whitlow, the true freshman who took over the offense when Maxwell Smith suffered an ankle injury on UK's third play and was out for the rest of the way.
Whitlow passed the ball with authority and ran it just enough to keep South Carolina from teeing off on the running game. The Wildcats blocked a punt, went up 17-7, and had a chance to put one more score on the board when they recovered a bad snap at the South Carolina 10 with one minute left in the half.
But they managed to run just one play -- a Raymond Sanders rush for no gain -- in the next 36 seconds, and had to take a timeout with 24 seconds left because of confusion over a play call. Phillips said Whitlow didn't hear the play call, and the Wildcats wound up having to call timeout. After a fumble two plays later, time expired without UK being able to run a final play or kick a field goal.
"We missed a huge opportunity," Phillips said afterward. "You've got to get some points. You know, we had our field goal team ready to run out on the field. We didn't anticipate fumbling the ball, and now it's just going for the ball, and we pick it up, and now it's only two or three seconds left instead of 10 to 12. So we missed a huge opportunity to get points.
"I think that was a momentum swing. It was. It was a huge momentum swing. We got the ball back in the second half. I think it would have definitely helped if we got some points out of that."
Instead, UK's offense slowly ground to a halt in the second half, and Steve Spurrier checked his fancy passing scheme at the locker room door, went to a basic I-formation and just pounded UK into submission.
So what are the takeaways:
-- UK HAS SOME FRESHMEN MAKING A MOVE. Whitlow played extremely well while within the confines of offensive calls that are within his skill set. When UK got behind and he had to go to a traditional drop-back passing game, he wasn't as effective. But when playing his game, zone reads and quick passes with his own number being called occasionally, the UK offense looked good against a very good South Carolina defense.
Whitlow found true freshman A.J. Legree twice for 25 yards, and he looks like a player who could be a weapon in the passing game moving forward. True freshman running back Dyshawn Mobley carried four times for 29 yards. Why a guy who averaged 7.2 yards on four carries didn't get it more, I'm not sure, but he's coming on. And defensively, Cody Quinn played well at cornerback , and freshman Daron Blaylock blocked a punt.
I've seen this before -- in fact, saw it a year ago. I watched U of L lose to Florida International and Marshall, only to turn it around to beat a ranked West Virginia team on the road, primarily because freshmen -- including a freshman quarterback -- started to "get it."
"I know it's starting to slow down for me," Quinn said. "You start to get more comfortable and used to the speed of the game."
"There were a lot of babies out there making plays for us again," Phillips said. "But there were a lot of mistakes made out there also."
-- WHITLOW IS PRETTY GOOD. In fact, while Maxwell Smith is unquestionably playing very well, I'm not so sure UK's offense isn't better suited for SEC competition with Whitlow running the show. With him in the game, the emphasis shifts to the ground, and though South Carolina dominated time of possession in the fourth quarter with two Whitlow interceptions, UK held the advantage the rest of the game -- which helps the defense.
Phillips said he'd probably install more of the quarterback running game if Smith can't go next week against Mississippi State, and that's an encouraging sign. Even though Whitlow is a solid passer, his ability to keep defenses off balance against the ground game is something UK could exploit, and it's better building around his talents rather than trying to fit him into a playbook compiled without him in mind.
In the second half, South Carolina adjusted by committing an extra safety to help down on the run. But on one third down play, Whitlow scrambled out of pressure, got by the eight men in the box and converted for a first down.
"He made some plays," Phillips said. "But the same motions and shifts that we do became really hard for him. He missed a few of them. Some of the pressure that he got was because he didn't send a motion or didn't send shifts. But, again, he's a guy who is a talented guy. A guy who we always say a freshman, he's going to make some plays, but they're going to make some mistakes also. They made a few plays in the first half, but made some mistakes that got you away from some of the things because you've got to send all the shifts and motions that we want."
A running quarterback can be an offensive equalizer, keeping defenses on their heels. I know Phillips likes to get out there and throw it around, but Whitlow could give them a chance to win with his legs, too.
-- PHILLIPS' SITUATION UNCHANGED. Giving up 31 unanswered points doesn't exactly send the, "Welcome back," message to any coach. This game doesn't move the needle one way or another on the Joker-meter. Every loss nudges him toward the door a bit, but this one was chalked up by most observers long ago. The announced crowd of 49,810 doesn't help either.
But the emergence of those freshmen could. If the Wildcats can extend the kind of first-half execution they showed tonight next week against Mississippi State, they'll have a chance. It's still an uphill climb, but those improving young players could change the outlook.
At the very least, they provide something to look at besides the tea leaves on the program's future.