Commodores, Wildcats looking to close strong
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Kentucky Wildcats view Saturday's game against Vanderbilt as the first step toward salvaging their season.
The Wildcats (1-8, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) are mired in a seven-game losing streak and haven't done many things right during their skid. They would like to start reversing that trend against the Commodores (4-4. 2-3).
Winning all of their remaining games is considered crucial to embattled coach Joker Phillips' future at Kentucky. But that's expecting a lot of the struggling Wildcats. Vanderbilt, Samford (5-3) and Tennessee (3-4) all have better records.
Still, after hitting a low point in a 33-10 loss to Missouri, the Wildcats believe the Commodores represent the first of three chances to end their frustration.
"You don't think about" the last loss, Kentucky sophomore linebacker Bud Dupree said. "You just put it in the past and try to beat Vanderbilt. We've got to win some of these games."
Though several blowout losses this season could be viewed as rock-bottom for Kentucky, last week's defeat at Missouri bothered the Wildcats more because the Tigers, winless in their initial SEC season, earned their first conference win against them.
Ironically, Dupree said the aftermath reminded him of Kentucky's 38-8 loss last year at Vandy that denied the Wildcats a chance to win consecutive games. But inspired play followed, first with a competitive loss at Georgia and a season-ending upset of Tennessee at home.
They're hoping for another bounce-back this year.
"I hope we play as good as we did after that game last year," Phillips said this week. "Obviously, we're not happy with how our season's been. The way to get it corrected is go back on the practice field and go to work, get some guys healthy and continue to forge ahead."
Kentucky's main focus is restarting an offense that committed three turnovers and mustered just 179 yards last week against Missouri, the Wildcats' second-lowest total this season. The rushing game accounted for 101 yards but Phillips wants big improvement there.
As for the passing game, Phillips plans to again rotate freshmen quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who returned last week after missing two games with a high ankle sprain. How much they'll alternate is unknown, and senior Morgan Newton remains in the picture as well.
Something is needed after the Whitlow/Towles combination failed against the Tigers: Whitlow was 9 of 18 for 76 yards passing and he led both scoring drives, but Towles couldn't sustain the momentum after entering on the third possession and finished 1 of 4 for 2 yards.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said his team anticipates seeing all three.
"Kentucky really knows how to run the football," he said. "They do nice things with schemes and angles. They've played three different quarterbacks, and we're going to have to be prepared for all of them."
The Commodores have won three of their past four games, including two straight. They've improved in several areas over last year, but especially on offense.
Vandy's averaging 377.4 yards per game, a 54.2-yard increase over this point last season. The Commodores' 211.2-yard passing average is 58.5 better and running back Zac Stacy leads their running game. He has become the school's career rushing leader with 2,685 yards.
Defensively, Vanderbilt has also improved.
The Commodores are allowing opponents to convert just 31 percent on third down, a 9 percent drop from last season. They also have two more sacks (19) than last year.
So while Kentucky has motivation to close strong after a horrid start, Vanderbilt players have incentive to see how much better they can get.
"Part of that is that we always know that we can play better," Commodores tackle Wesley Johnson said. "We'll never play a perfect game no matter how much we try to. We strive for perfection and we accept excellence, but there is kind of a feeling that we haven't put four quarters together yet."
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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