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For Kentucky Football, Survive and Thrive

Nov 17, 2009 – 8:00 AM
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Jim Henry

Jim Henry %BloggerTitle%

Kentucky WildcatsWhile No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama each play glorified scrimmages on Saturday and continue their march to the SEC Championship game next month, one of the more intriguing conference match-ups features Kentucky at Georgia. Yes, Kentucky. Football.

The Wildcats have done an impressive job of persevering this season.

They will be searching for their first victory in Athens, Ga., since 1977 and can improve their bowl berth in the final two games of the regular season. Kentucky has also won its last two road games for the first time since 2002 and has won four of its last five overall.

Head coach Rich Brooks frequently talks to his team about doing things that have never been done at Kentucky, or haven't been done in a long time.

The Wildcats (6-4 overall, 3-3 SEC) haven't disappointed -- Saturday's win over Vanderbilt marked the first time since 1953-56 that UK has won at least six games in four consecutive seasons -- despite contending with an array of injuries.

But let's not get too excited. Setting expectations, reaching expectations and exceeding expectations are three different agendas.

Kentucky fans, who have not seen their football program finish in the Top 25 since it was the top 20 in 1984, have applauded the first two. They want more, and have the opportunity to inch closer to that goal with a win over the Bulldogs. Kentucky last beat Georgia in 2006 but has dropped 11 of the past 12 in the series.
"We all know that the fans have a different expectation level now, and that's a good thing," Brooks said Monday.

"Sometimes they express it in very negative ways, but by and large, I think the expectation level of this football program has changed dramatically, and I would like to think that that's a really good thing.

"I hope our players are willing to work like they worked in the last 30 minutes of the Vanderbilt game all week this week, and during the Georgia game so you can have an impact, if you will, so we can climb up the SEC East ladder a little bit higher."

Kentucky might be enjoying even a better season without injuries.

Quarterback Mike Hartline will undergo knee surgery Tuesday and will not be available until a projected bowl game. Cornerback Trevard Lindley, projected as a high-round NFL draft pick, missed four games with an ankle injury. Tailback Derrick Locke and wide receiver Randall Cobb, the team's top play makers, each missed a game and have been banged up much of the year.

Regardless, work remains against Georgia and in the regular-season finale at home versus Tennessee.

"It feels good to know you're bowl eligible but you can't get complacent," senior offensive guard Christian Johnson said.

"If you look in the SEC there are a few six-win teams. If we didn't win another game, six wins possibly couldn't get us into a bowl game. We really need to win another one. Not just for the bowl game, but a seven- or eight-win season would be huge for Kentucky, it's my last year and it would be huge to go out on that note."

Brooks said becoming bowl eligible for a fourth straight season is a tribute to the senior class. The Wildcats have certainly hit some historical milestones this season:

• Kentucky's 42-0 win vs. Miami (Ohio) was the Wildcats' first shutout in 13 years.

• Kentucky's 31-27 win over Louisville was the third-consecutive triumph over the Wildcats'in-state rivals, the first time that has been accomplished since the Governor's Cup rivalry was renewed in 1994.

• UK defeated Auburn for the first time in 43 years. It also marked UK's first win at Auburn since 1961.

• UK had no penalties and no turnovers in the win at Auburn, the first time in school history that had been accomplished, dating back to single-game statistics available since 1946.

• Kentucky's win over Eastern Kentucky was UK's 18th consecutive non-conference victory, which is a new school record. The previous record was 17 straight wins from 1954-60.

On the flip side, there was the team's disappointing homecoming defeat to Mississippi State, which, at 4-6, is the lone team among Kentucky's blemishes that has a losing record.

While Brooks was delighted with the Wildcats' ability to run the ball for more than 300 against Vandy, he knows Kentucky must throw the ball to have any chance for an upset victory over Georgia.

Freshman Morgan Newton will stay at quarterback with occasional doses of Cobb in the Wildcat formation. Newton has started the last five games, completing 58.9 percent of his passes (43 of 73) for 402 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions while rushing for 86 yards and two scores.

"I think I said after the Auburn game we have to throw the ball better moving forward," Brooks said.

"And since then we haven't, but we have won three out of the last four. We threw it better against Eastern [Kentucky] obviously, but in my mind this game, if we don't throw the ball well, we are going to struggle to win it. We have to open it up a little bit, take some shots. We have to keep people backed off a little bit, but we will see how it goes."

It has gone well for the senior class. But it can be better, too.

"It feels good, this is one of the reasons we all came to Kentucky," Johnson said.

"We're still a program on the rise; we're not where we need to be but the fact that we've done something that Kentucky hasn't done with the possibility of winning four bowl games, I believe you leave a certain legacy. I want to be able to say I played in four bowl games and I won four bowl games."

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