Blue Team Earns 31-28 Victory in Blue/White Game
April 23, 2011
Late this week, UK's coaching staff opted to change the format of Saturday's annual Blue/White Spring Game to pit the first team versus second team. To even out the matchup, junior quarterback Morgan Newton and UK's first teamers (White team) were handicapped with a 14-0 deficit against the second teamers (Blue team) to begin the game. However, behind a stout defense, the Blue team had actually extended its lead to 28-7 in front of 4,000 fans in Commonwealth Stadium.
It was at that point that Newton led the Blue team on three consecutive touchdown drives to tie the game with 3:34 left in the fourth quarter. Newton, UK's projected starter for 2011, showed off a strong and accurate arm both in and out of the pocket in throwing touchdowns on each of the three drives. In the end though, his efforts were not enough as sophomore kicker Joe Mansour hit a 38-yard field goal with under a minute left to give the Blue team a 31-28 victory.
Although Newton's effort came in a loss, coach Joker Phillips is pleased with his development from where he was early in his career.
"It's night and day," Phillips said. "If you look at it, he is one of those few guys who played as a freshman. He has started in two bowl games already, and he has two years left. As a freshman, if you saw him after the Music City Bowl, and saw him very little in the season last year, and then playing in the (BBVA Compass) bowl game, it's night and day. He now understands he is changing protections. His first year, he couldn't have done a lot of those things. He has handled himself in the huddle. I also really like the way he has handled himself at the line of scrimmage."
Newton (23-for-44 passing, 256 yards and three touchdowns) did not move the chains as consistently as he would have liked, but he showed the mobility in and out of the pocket that figures to bring a new dimension to UK's attack. Newton looked for big target wide receivers Matt Roark, Brian Adams and La'Rod King but the group struggled early with drops, which had a lot to do with the White team's early inability to move the ball.
"We need to get better at timing but we'll work on that over the summer," Newton said. "That's what the summer is for. It's for getting everyone together."
Newton had one mistake in the second quarter, when a throw over the middle of the field was intercepted by senior safety Josh Gibbs , who returned it for a 33-yard touchdown with 4:08 left in the first half to give the Blue team a 28-7 lead.
Newton, though, was not fazed. In less than 10 minutes, he led drives of 80 yards, 60 yards and 60 yards. On the first two drives, Newton used the deep ball to put the ball in the end zone to score quickly, hitting Adams with a 39-yard bomb to set up one score, followed by a 34-yards pass to Adams for another TD. On the game-tying drive, though, Newton led a 14-play drive that spanned 5:39 on the clock without the benefit of a play longer than 11 yards.
Before Newton and the Blue team mounted their second half comeback, the defense was the story. Debuting a new hybrid scheme instituted by co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter, the Wildcat defense used a combination of aggressive quarterback pressure, hard hitting and turnovers to stymie the offenses.
The two teams combined for 448 total yards, with the Blue team limited to 94 total yards and minus-five yards rushing. Additionally, the teams had 10 combined sacks, 18 tackles for loss and three turnovers.
"On defense, our goal for the spring was to create more turnovers, and more negative plays, and I thought we did that," Phillips said. "Today, we showed that we can attack. We were always on the back of some people. They always slithered through gaps. We also have some speed on the perimeter with Winston Guy, Ridge Wilson. All of those guys have a chance to be really good edge rushers. We came out of there able to create the things we wanted to do. We created minus-yards plays and we created turnovers."
Defensive line play by both teams was particularly encouraging, especially considering how much experience and talent UK returns along the offensive line. With exotic blitzes coming from the linebackers and secondary, the defensive line capitalized on more one-on-one matchups and spent a lot of time in both the Blue and White backfields. For the White team, senior defensive tackle Luke McDermott had a pair of sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss and junior defensive end Collins Ukwu had a sack, two tackles for loss and another a quarterback hurry. Redshirt freshman defensive end Justin Henderson had two sacks and three tackles for loss for the Blue team.
Another player that thrived in the new scheme throughout spring practices is senior safety/linebacker Winston Guy. In his new dual role, Guy was all over the field, showing fans and coaches alike that his final year in the Kentucky uniform could be a big one. Guy made plays against both the running game and passing game and also showed the ability to pressure the quarterback on blitzes. Guy finished with only four tackles, but had a number of crushing hits as well as two pass break-ups.
Freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith was under center for the Blue team throughout the game and had to deal with Guy and a swarming White team defense. In spite of the challenges presented by the first-team defense and his inexperience, Smith showed the kind of arm and pocket presence that could make him a very good SEC quarterback in the future.
Smith completed 10 of 21 passes for 99 yards. On his second drive, Smith guided the Blue team to its only offensive touchdown on a quick four-play drive that culminated with a 54-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver E.J. Fields.
In spite of being sacked seven times and facing constant pressure, Smith avoided mistakes for the most part, which allowed the White team to be in position for the winning drive. With 1:38 remaining, the Blue team took possession on the White 34-yard line. Smith completed a 16-yard pass to junior wide receiver Aaron Boyd to get in comfortable field goal range. However, an offensive holding call and a sack on the ensuing two plays set the Blue team back before Smith managed to set up Mansour's field goal with a crucial 14-yard completion on second down.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme of spring practice has been how UK will replace the playmaking ability of departed offensive stars Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews and after a first half that saw a number of drops by wide receivers and inconsistency in the running game, there was cause for concern. However, the group eventually rebounded.
Sophomore wide receiver Brian Adams has drawn consistent praise this spring from Joker Phillips in spite of splitting time between football and baseball and he was the star today in the passing game. Adams finished with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns, showing off both his speed downfield and his ability to make tough catches over the middle of the field, all of which were on display in the White team's nearly completed comeback.
"It was a lot of fun," Adams said. "We did some good things on offense."
As for potential replacements in the running game, sophomores Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George and junior Coshik Williams all ran well at times. Sanders led the way with 85 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, as well as five catches for 12 yards out of the backfield. George finished with just 32 yards on nine carries, but his electrifying 70-yard run on the first play of the second half was nullified by a holding call.
The Blue/White Game marks the end of spring practice and the Wildcats will now head into the offseason. They will next take the field in August for preseason practice in preparation for UK's season opener on Sept. 1 against Western Kentucky University in Nashville, Tenn. All in all, Phillips is pleased with what his team was able to get done throughout the spring. As the team moves forward, getting healthy and staying that way will be important.
"We have to stay healthy," Phillips said. "We have some guys that were out. (Sophomore defensive tackle Mister) Cobble, (sophomore defensive end) Tristian Johnson (were out). We will get them back in the fall, and that will only help our depth. With those guys being out, this team is very similar to the 2005 team who had all of those injuries. These injuries that we had this spring gave a lot of young kids a chance to get some reps. I think it is only going to help our team."
Those injuries have allowed more players a chance to play, which showed itself in the way that the second team played in the Blue team victory.
"I was really pleased with the way our second-teamers played," Phillips said. "That only helps our depth. That is something that we have to have. We have to have depth. I think we have a good first 22, but we have to have guys behind them. I was excited about some of the plays these kids made. Justin Henderson looks like an SEC player. (Offensive tackle) Tevin Eatmon looks like an SEC player. All of this says is that we have a chance with this football team."