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No quit in these Cats, but WKU wins in OT

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Avery Williamson intercepted a pass by Kawaun Jakes in the first quarter of UK's 32-31 loss to Western Kentucky University. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Avery Williamson intercepted a pass by Kawaun Jakes in the first quarter of UK's 32-31 loss to Western Kentucky University. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Late in the second quarter, things looked bleak for Kentucky. Visiting Western Kentucky University had  a 17-0 lead and the crowd in Commonwealth Stadium was wondering if the Wildcats could pick themselves up.

After a bruising Hilltopper drive to open the second half, the situation looked dire once more. WKU had just driven 75 yards for a touchdown in seven minutes to take a 24-10 lead and stem the momentum gained by the Cats when they scored 10 points in the final 5:01 of the first half.

One last time, UK seemed in nearly inescapable trouble with the clock ticking inside four minutes left in the fourth quarter. WKU's grinding ground game had just converted a third-and-one with UK down a touchdown and with just two timeouts in hand.

Somehow, the Cats managed to dig themselves out of each of those holes. Some way, UK tied the game with 24 seconds left in regulation and scored a go-ahead touchdown in overtime.

But in the end, it was the Wildcats left heartbroken when WKU answered with a touchdown of its own, went for the two-point conversion and won when Antonio Andrews threw back from behind the line of scrimmage to quarterback Kawuan Jakes, who ran into the end zone after a shoestring catch.

"It was well-designed play," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "It might work once or twice a year, but it worked tonight. Give them credit."

After watching your players refuse to give up for 60 minutes and more only to have their effort rewarded with a 32-31 loss sure to be prominently feature on the SportsCenter Top 10, what do you tell your football team?

"Tonight, you don't say a whole lot," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "You tell them you're proud of the effort and proud of the way they competed and proud of the way they battled. Obviously we made too many mistakes early, put ourselves in a hole. I was proud of the way they competed. They obviously never give up on anything, keep competing, keep fighting and put ourselves in position to have a chance."

Perhaps best exemplifying his team's night, which sent UK to 1-2 on the season, was Maxwell Smith. The sophomore signal caller was turnover-free through his first eight quarters of the season, but tossed three interceptions in his first 16 attempts and another in the midst of UK's comeback bid in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, Smith just kept on throwing, and then throwing some more. He finished with 37 completions in 60 attempts, 332 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-tying score to freshman DeMarcus Sweat.

"I was really proud of him," Sanders said. "He kind of dinged his shoulder up a little bit, kind of hurt his leg a little bit. It obviously affected him a little bit with some of his accuracy there in the fourth quarter, missed a couple throws that we usually hit. But the guy kept competing, kept standing in there, kept making plays."

Smith certainly made his share of plays in his second 300-yard performance in as many games, but he was more concerned with the miscues.

"I thought I had an alright game besides the four picks, but that's like saying I pitched well but I gave up four grand slams," Smith said.

Smith was at the helm for UK's comeback bid, but it was running back Jonathan George he dubbed player of the game. With Raymond Sanders suspended due to a violation of team rules and starter CoShik Williams going down with a hip strain early, the Cats turned almost exclusively to George in the backfield. He did everything that was asked of him and more.

"Jon played great tonight," Smith said. "He was doing a lot of things. He did well in protection, making guys miss, doing what you got to do as a back and not letting the first guy bring you down."

George had 105 total yards from scrimmage (51 rushing, 54 passing) and three touchdowns because he was prepared to step up when the moment called for it.

"I always tell myself just to be ready to play whenever because you never know what can happen," George said. "Last week with CoShik out and Raymond out this weekend, it just shows why you need to be ready to play."

Thankfully for UK, he was ready.

"He was the only one we had and I thought he cowboyed up for us and really played well," Randy Sanders said. "Fortunately he did. I don't know what we would have done if he had not been able to do it."

Whether it's George, Williams or Raymond Sanders in the backfield, the question for a Kentucky team facing seven Southeastern Conference games in a row without a bye week becomes whether it can rebound from a disappointing loss. Head coach Joker Phillips looks no further than UK's performance against WKU for the answer.

"They had an opportunity to hang their heads today," Phillips said. "They had an opportunity down in the first half and even late in the second half. They had an opportunity. This team is a team that I know I've heard the word soft a couple times, and this team is not soft by any means."

Even so, everyone involved with this team also realizes the distractions they are about to face in the wake of the loss. Fans will wonder whether the SEC schedule will be too difficult and media will ask plenty of tough questions.

"We know it's going to be there, they know it's going to be there," Sanders said. "You always try to teach them that, when things are going good, you better listen to your coaches and listen to your teammates. When things are going bad, you better listen to your coaches and to your teammates. We still got nine games to play. I've been here for five bowl games and I want to be here for six. That's still our goal."

Players and coaches will do their best to block out everything outside of the team, but they still have a message for the UK faithful.

"Don't lose hope on us," George said. "We're fighting hard. We're going to come out every week. We're working hard."

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