By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – When Kentucky opens its 2011 season on Thursday in Nashville against intra-state rival Western Kentucky, both sidelines will be led by a man fulfilling his life-long dream.
Second-year UK head coach Joker Phillips was a standout wide receiver for the Wildcats from 1981-84 and directed his squad to a 6-6 regular-season record a year ago and the team’s school-record fifth consecutive bowl game. He’s ready to take his team to the next level when this season kicks off tomorrow night at 9:15 p.m. ET.
“We’re excited about playing,” Phillips said. “We’ve been beating up on each other for a month now. It’s game week and you can feel it around our place with our players, especially our older players. It’s starting to rub off on some of these young kids that understand how to handle themselves and prepare themselves for game week.”
Across the field is Willie Taggart, a four-year starting quarterback for Western Kentucky from 1995-98, who set 11 school records during his career and later had his jersey retired. Taggart also is in his second season at the helm of the Hilltoppers program, struggling in his opening campaign with a 2-10 record.
“We’ve been working, working, working in the offseason and now we are ready to see how all that hard work is going to pay off,” Taggart said. “For me, I’m ready to see how much our team improved. I’m seeing the culture change and seeing the guys do things how we want them to. I’m really interested to see how we go out and perform on the football field.”
Though there are differences between the two men, there are also many similarities. Mainly, they are two driven coaches who are in their second years at their alma maters and are looking to direct the programs in which they take so much pride to heights previously unaccomplished.
Phillips is very familiar with Taggart and says that he can relate to the enthusiasm that Taggart has for his job.
“I’ve known him since he was a player,” Phillips said. “He’s a really good guy and is doing a great job with the program. I was excited for him when he got a chance to lead his alma mater also. I’m sure he’s living the same dream I’m living.”
For both men, the game in Nashville has special significance as the area serves as a major recruiting hotbed for both coaches.
“This game is big for us,” Phillips said. “We try to hit that area really hard in recruiting. It’s also close to western Kentucky and we’ve done well there in the past also. It’s been a really good recruiting tool for us to play there and also to say we’re playing at an NFL stadium. We did it two years ago and we’re doing it again this year. It’s been really good to use that as a selling point.”
Taggart agrees, saying that playing in the Nashville area is equally important because both programs have great fan bases in the Music City area.
“I think it is big-time for our university, our community, our football guys and the whole Hilltopper nation that we go down there and put on a good showing,” Taggart said. “We know Kentucky is going to travel well and we have to show that we can do that too. It’s not just WKU football, it’s Western Kentucky University, our community, all of Bowling Green and our alums. We need everyone to come out and take pride in our university and lift our team to the kind of effort that we are going to need. That’s why we picked this place – we expect to have a sea of red in that building.”
Kentucky and Western Kentucky are meeting for just the third time in school history on Thursday with each of those meetings coming since 2008. In 2009, UK and WKU agreed to play each other for the next four years, with the 2010 and 2012 meetings taking place in Lexington and the 2011 and 2013 meetings at LP Field in Nashville.
HOME, SWEET NASHVILLE
During Kentucky’s school-record stretch of five consecutive bowl games, three of those contests have taken place at LP Field in Nashville, including two victories that played a critical part in changing the identity of Kentucky football.
In 2006, playing their first bowl game since 1999, the Wildcats faced Clemson in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, pulling off a 28-20 win to mark the school’s first bowl win since capturing the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1984. Then-quarterback Andre’ Woodson was named the Most Valuable Player, completing 20-of-28 passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns.
A year later, capping off one of the finest seasons in program history, Kentucky returned to Nashville to square off with Florida State in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. The Wildcats struck quickly and never trailed in the 35-28 victory that gave Kentucky its first back-to-back bowl wins since the 1950 and 1951 seasons.
PHILLIPS FOCUSES ON STOPPING THE RUN
One name at the top of the Kentucky scouting report will be Western Kentucky All-America candidate Bobby Rainey, the 2010 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.
Rainey ranked third in the nation in rushing yards per game (137.42), while leading the nation in rushing attempts (340) last season. He also rated 11th in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (156.58) a year ago. Rainey enters the 2011 campaign boasting a streak of five consecutive 100-yard performances.
“Last year, he ran for about 180 yards,” Phillips said. “You cannot allow a team to rush for that many yards on you. Rushing yards demoralize you and you’ve got to stop the run. When people are able to line up and run the ball on you, it’s a slap in the face. Last year, that was a slap in the face the way they ran the ball on us. They have a really good offensive line, but we’ve got to rally to the ball and get Rainey on the ground. He’s a talented back, no question about that.”