The coach declined to say what he told his team following Saturday’s setback.
“That’s our business,” Phillips said. “Again, we give credit to Western Kentucky but what we say in our locker room is our business.”
Outside the locker room, Phillips’ job security is a topic of discussion.
The third-year coach was one-upped by Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart, whose HIlltoppers waltzed into Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night and defeat the Wildcats 32-31 in overtime.
Taggart dug into his bag of tricks on a two-point conversion.
The Hilltoppers (2-1) went for the win after Antonio Andrews pulled them within a point on a 2-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw a lateral to Andrews, who threw back to Jakes to clinch the victory.
The defeat ended a 19-game winning streak for Kentucky over opponents from outside Bowl Championship Series conferences, dating back to a 28-16 loss to Ohio on Oct. 2, 2004.
Phillips’ support within the Kentucky fan base is eroding.
The announced crowd of 53,980 Saturday night was the smallest since the final home game of the 2006 season and slightly larger than the 48,346 who showed up for the Wildcats’ 2012 home opener against Kent State. That was the smallest home crowd since the 1996 finale.
The loss left Kentucky with a 1-2 record and facing a trip to Gainesville to face No. 18 Florida next Saturday, the first of eight games remaining on the schedule against Southeastern Conference foes.
After Western Kentucky staged a wild celebration on the field at the end the game, Taggart took a swipe at Kentucky’s program.
“WKU red is the new blue,” he said.
Still, Phillips refused to get into a war of words.
“I’m not about to talk about an opponent,” Phillips said. “That’s me. Say what you want. I’m not a tough guy. I’m a tough guy because I’m not going to talk about someone else’s program. I played at the highest level and it’s a shame the game has gotten to this.
“I respect Willie. I think he’s done a hell of a job there but I’m not going to talk about another program or have our kids run their mouth and disrespect them. Not going to do it.”
Kentucky nearly escaped the carnage with a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Wildcats trailed 17-0 in the first half and 24-17 with just 2:14 to go when quarterback Maxwell Smith engineered a 77-yard scoring drive to send the game into overtime.
“I still think we’ve got a really good football team,” Phillips said. “We’ve got a lot of young players. We’ll continue to play them and see how much they get week to week.”
The win was the second in as many weeks for a Sun Belt team over a school from the powerful SEC. Louisiana-Monroe upset then-No. 8 Arkansas in Fayetteville on Sept. 8 and nearly did the same to Auburn earlier Saturday. The loss was Kentucky’s second to an in-state foe this season, as the Wildcats were shellacked 32-14 by Louisville in the season opener.
Kentucky scored first in overtime against the Hilltoppers on a 12-yard rush by Jonathan George. The Wildcats had Western Kentucky facing fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line before being penalized for roughing the passer. Western Kentucky’s Andrews scored on the next play and the Hilltoppers called timeout to set up the trick play for the win.
“We’re in man-to-man coverage and the only guy you don’t have a man accounted for is the quarterback,” Phillips said of the conversion attempt. “Great play.”
The Hilltoppers dominated early. They raced out to a 17-0 first-half lead, intercepting Kentucky’s Maxwell Smith three times—the sophomore quarterback would add another later. Smith did lead Kentucky on a 77-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 22-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat.
Jakes completed 16 of 20 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown and Andrews rushed 34 times for 123 yards and three scores to lead the Hilltoppers’ upset victory.
Smith entered the game ranked 24th nationally in total offense but struggled from the outset before coming to life late, completing 37 of 60 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Smith came in having not thrown an interception in 89 pass attempts.
Jonathan Dowling intercepted Smith for the third time—the fourth Western Kentucky interception—early in the fourth quarter but fumbled on the return and Kentucky offensive tackle Darrian Miller recovered, giving the Wildcats another chance. Western Kentucky’s defense held firm again, breaking up a Kentucky pass on fourth-and-7 at its own 33 to maintain its 24-17 lead.