Joker Phillips 2011 Goes In The Record Books
Well, If you are Joker Phillips, 2011 could have ended better, but you will take it and be thankful. Kentucky's improbable, if not miraculous win over Tennessee on the Saturday following Thanksgiving should have given him plenty to be thankful for. And Matt Roark should get a Turkey for Christmas from Joker, every year for the rest of his life from him for the amazing effort he put forward.
Joker showed his "riverboat gambler" reputation was well earned on Saturday when he put an untested QB under center due to injuries to his two ineffective starters. Matt Roark was one of the UK leading wide receivers when he was approached by Joker Phillips about going under center for the season and as luck would have it, collegiate career ending game for Roark. A senior who has been somewhat missing for most of his time at UK, Roark played QB in High School, but had never gotten the call to take a snap in college. His biggest claim to fame before Saturday was his part in the limited resurgence of Kentucky's offense under Maxwell Smith's efforts midway through the season after Morgan Newton was hurt and unable to compete with Smith for the starting job. Roark, who could not catch most of the balls thrown his way earlier in the year by Newton ( he was far from being alone in that respect, no one was catching much of what Newton was throwing), was all of a sudden the fans and Smith's best buddy because he was catching everything Smith was throwing. And not only catching the ball, gaining yards after the catch as well. Roark was all but invisible when Newton was throwing the ball had become a "go to" guy who was vital to the Cats being able to move the ball and score. But no one saw what that would lead to last week when Joker asked Roark to take the helm and lead the Cats into battle against Tennessee, a team they had not defeated on the gridiron in 26 years. A ruse? A ploy? A distraction to keep UT's defense from being able to prepare for the Cats, only to be replaced at the last minute by either Smith or Newton? No, not when Joker Phillips is calling the shots. He put his entire season and possibly his coaching livlihood in the hands of a guy who had never thrown a pass at UK. Then he went and did something even more bizarre. He didn't let Roark throw the ball.
Oh Roark threw a few passes, he ended the game and his career at UK 4-6 for 15 yds. That's the entire game. Phillips and his coaches didn't install an offense (they only used about 6 plays the whole game), they instead allowed Roark to run the offense he was comfortable with from High School, the option. Roark spent the entire day throwing pitchouts to the guys when he absolutely had to, but otherwise taking the load on himself and running for 124yds on 24 carries. A 5.2 avg. for those of you at home keeping score, which ended up being the highest average of any UK rusher all season. Thoise kinds of numbers would normally constitute a decent day for a college rusher, but in the case of Roark have made him the stuff of legend. To put up those numbers with very little preparation, against a team that has absolutely owned Kentucky over the course of almost three decades is unfathomable. They make movies in Hollywood about that kind of stuff. And the miraculaous parts don't end there.
Roark had zero turnovers for the day, handling bungled snaps in shotgun formation, and a snafu close to the goal line that some claim should have been called the other way (I myself had my doubts as to what the officials would call), which only enhanced the performance that Roark posted, in spite of the nightmare scenario that he was placed in, which brings me to my point of all of this.
The Cats got a signature win Saturday to end a painful and bizarre season. Not bizarre in the record, not bizarre in the struggles, because Kentucky has faced those constantly over the last few year, but always finding someone to make the play when needed to bring home the mediocrity that the Cats have become known for in a power laden SEC, where if you don't play football for blood, you don't play football. Kentucky in recent years had outshined the likes of Vanderbilt, Miss. State, Mississippi, and the other lower eschelon teams in the SEC and had placed themselves firmly right in the middle of the pack. However, since Joker's appointment to the Head Coaching position, things had taken a noticeable downturn. The Cats were not beating the teams they were supposed to beat, and a miracle win was nowhere in the sights of anyone before Saturday. Long gone were the days of beating LSU in a miracle, or Alabama, or some others which had come along over the last few years. Tennessee and Florida wins are the holy grail at UK, and whatever pricetag is attached to those must be paid. But this team was headed for 4-8 and the basement of the SEC once again, just four years after climbing to the heights of the LSU victory and an 8 win season. Nothing to become suicidal about, but concerning somewhat considering the Phillips himself has been the lead recruiter at UK for years, going back well beyond his taking the reigns last year.
So why was Roark under center and running for his life most of the day Saturday? It's simple really. He was thrown to the wolves, stepped up, manned up, and took his coach's failure on his shoulders and carried the load. Luckily for him, it turned out the way it did. Had Roark not pulled off another Blurgrass Miracle, I fell pretty confident that discussions this week would be going in a slightly different direction. Make no mistake about it, Joker and Co. were desperate and Roark was the sacrificial lamb. It's a good thing that Roark didn't feel like falling on his sword. He gave the fans hope, the experts something to scratch their heads about and ponder, and hopefully Joker a second chance to never put another kid in this hole again. Roark is a hero, Joker gets credited by some for being innovative enough to pull out the win and get his name in the books at Kentucky for being a coach who knocks down old taboos. I hope he knows just how thankful he should be this holiday season, and that he makes sure Roark knows it.