With a new brand of excitement, a new coaching staff, and a new perspective, the Kentucky Wildcats hosted the Big Blue Nation in their Spring Game Saturday night. Mark Stoops was set to unveil his first team ever as a head coach, but how many people would actually show up? Just last year, this same Kentucky squad went 2-10 and didn’t win a game in the SEC. If the first walk to the stadium, known as “The Cat Walk” was any indication, everyone was going to be a little surprised. When the ‘Cats took the field, a record 50,831 fans completely filled the lower bowl of Commonwealth Stadium, and much of the upper deck (pictured below).
Kentucky’s Spring Game attendance toppled other numbers from schools like Texas, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Southern Cal, South Carolina, Florida State, Texas A&M, Michigan, and Louisville. The number of fans that piled into the stadium after a 2-10 season was astounding. Last year’s mark of a generous 4,500 people (pictured below) was quickly overshadowed, and the overall record set back in 1987 of 20,325 fans was shattered. The last two home games of last year combined to only equal 39,815. The highest recorded attendance for any UK home game last year was vs. Western Kentucky with 43, 174.
Despite the fans being a huge story, there was still a game to be played. The local media and fellow UK fans alike were anxiously waiting to see who the coaching staff would send to start the game, particularly at the QB position. When the moment finally came for someone to take a snap, all three quarterbacks in contention for the starting spot trotted on the field. In a quirky formation, the designed trick play didn’t put the ball in any of the QB’s hands. When asked about the play, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said it was to get the crowd going, and for everyone to still wonder who the starter is going to be. The quarterbacks took turns with each team, and were not allowed to be hit. The defense just had to touch the QB for the play to die in this scrimmage.
If anyone made a case for the starting QB spot, it was Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow completed 17-29 attempts for 193 yards, 2 TD’s, and had 7 rushes for 49 yards. He easily made 3 of the best passes during the game, and brings the element of a dual threat quarterback in a high octane offense. Patrick Towles seemed to really struggle and appeared rusty. Towles went 6-14 for 65 yards, 1 TD, and threw the game’s only interception. Towles said after the game he needed to work on his footwork, and that’s why his passes were off. Before he was injured, Max Smith was the starter last season and put up a decent stat-line in this contest. Smith went 11-18 for 108 yards and 1 TD. Perhaps the most forgotten about QB in the fold for Kentucky is incoming freshman Reese Phillips. The Tennessee native showed a ton of promise as he went 10-12 for 75 yards and 1 TD.
The new “Air Raid” offense was on full display with the quarterback’s lighting up the scoreboard and the stat sheets. The Air Raid sirens were also going off to the tune of every Kentucky score, and the crowd loved it. The quarterbacks were not the only story on offense. Running back Josh Clemons was coming back from a knee injury that forced him to not see the field for a year and a half. On Clemons’ first run, the crowd cheered for his return. He had 10 rush attempts for 56 yards. Perhaps the stand-out wide receiver of the bunch was Rashad Cunningham. His 8 receptions and 81 yards put everyone on notice.
On the defensive side of the ball, you had to look at the defensive ends as a bright spot for this group. Junior College transfer Za’Darius Smith proved to be quite a man among boys on the field. If he was allowed to sack the quarterback, he probably would have had 3 for the game. Bud Dupree also made sure he was not forgotten by the new addition of Smith, Dupree constantly gets off the edge and gets in the face of the quarterback.
For what it’s worth, the Blue team won 24-23 over the White. The bigger picture looking forward is that this game was a great night for the football program at Kentucky. To get the people interested, and back in those seats will do wonders for the program’s mental stability. The players feed of the fans’ energy and enthusiasm. The hiring of Mark Stoops and his staff have the Big Blue Nation believing in football again. The numbers never lie, and 50,831 people for a practice is not bad at all for a “basketball” school.