November 27, 2011

Roark's heroic performance caps unlikely career

Tim Couch couldn't outduel Peyton Manning. Jared Lorenzen came up short for four years. Andre Woodson made it to four overtimes, but couldn't complete a 17-point comeback.

For all the Kentucky quarterbacks who couldn't end the Wildcats' 26-year losing streak to Tennessee, it took Matt Roark, a wide receiver pressed into an emergency start at quarterback, to beat the Vols.

"Somebody said coming out that we were either the smartest or the dumbest coaching staff for putting him back there," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "He did an amazing job."

Roark's stats weren't overly impressive. He completed just 4-6 passes for 15 yards and had zero net passing yards after the first drive of the game, when he hit tight end Nick Melillo for a 15-yard completion.

But he did run for 124 yards on 24 carries, leading the Kentucky offense on two scoring drives. That was all they needed for the 10-7 win.

Roark heard on Sunday that he would likely be required to take some snaps at quarterback against the Volunteers. He'd been working out of the Wildcat formation in practice for several weeks in case Phillips needed a last-ditch stopgap at the position.

It wasn't until team meetings on Tuesday morning that he heard he would be the starter and have to play the entire game.

"I wanted to tell my family, but they have a big mouth," Roark said. "And my friends tweet all the time, so I didn't want to tell them."

Roark was forced into playing quarterback when freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith injured his right (throwing) shoulder in last week's loss to Georgia. Backup Morgan Newton is expected to undergo surgery on Tuesday for a torn labrum and could not throw effectively.

Phillips told the media that Smith was expected to start during the week. Roark even warmed up with the wide receivers before the game. But that was all smoke and mirrors as offensive coordinator Randy Sanders installed a package for Roark to run during the week.

"If Max or Morgan had been an option, we would have played them," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Really, there was no other option."

To say the offense had to be scaled back for Roark is an understatement. Sanders said that in the previous week, his game plan had been six pages when Smith, a true freshman, was starting at quarterback. With just one week to prepare Roark for the Volunteers, the game plan shrank to one page.

"And there was plenty of empty space on that one," Sanders said.

Roark handed off to tailbacks, ran reverses, bootlegged, scrambled, and baited the Tennessee defense while protecting the ball. The offense struggled at times, going three-and-out on six possessions, but didn't turn the ball over. Only three of Roark's completions went for positive yards.

Instead of using his arm to beat the defense, Roark, a former high school quarterback, attacked the waiting Tennessee defense time and time again. Kentucky opened the game with a 15-play, 62-yard drive for a field goal led by Roark.

On the game-winning drive, Roark had runs of five, 24, seven, 26, and one yards as Kentucky scored its final touchdown. Long after the Tennessee defense had made adjustments to stop Kentucky's new offense, he continued to fight for extra yardage.

"It was frustrating at times to stand there and see things that would be wide open but not be able to do it," Sander said. "The kids bought into what we were selling and went out and fought their guts out."

That was the only option the offense had. Roark had 51 plays installed for him, but Sanders only felt comfortable calling 47 of those. Kentucky ended up running about 30 different plays during the game.

"We wanted to grind it out three yards here, four yards there, get ourselves into fourth-and-shorts to decide whether we wanted to go for it," Phillips said.

The win ended Roark's up-and-down career on an incredible high note. He had contributed primarily as a special teams player and kick-blocking specialist in his first three years on campus before breaking into the wide receiver rotation to start his senior year.

But he struggled from there, dropping several passes in the season opener against Western Kentucky. When he dropped a touchdown pass the next week against Central Michigan, he was benched.

"I told him in the locker room, 'Remember the Central Michigan game when you were sitting over there with your head down?'" Sander said. "'I told you to get your head up. You're a good football player. Just keep working. We're going to need you before the season is over.'

"He kept his head up, kept working and I told you guys several times how proud I was of him because of the way he kept working."

He bounced back to become one of Kentucky's primary receiving threats late in the year. He had back-to-back hundred yard games and appeared to have turned the corner.

Roark was confident early in the week, predicting a win over Tennessee.

"(We'll be remembered) as the team that beat Tennessee, because that's what we're about to do, what we are planning on doing," Roark told reporters.

Though the public didn't know it at the time, Roark made the prediction after being informed that he would be the starting quarterback.

Imagining a win over Tennessee was one thing. But Roark said he had never imagined he would play quarterback for the Wildcats. He was carried off the field by fans after the game, a hero who helped end one of the most frustrating streaks in Kentucky football history.

"I'm happy for Matt," Sanders said. "I'm happy for him to go out having achieved what he achieved today. But I'm just as happy for Stuart Hines, Billy Joe, Chandler Burden, Nick Melillo, all those guys.

"It would have been really easy for our guys to throw in the towel at some point this year. We've had a ton of injuries, a ton of adversity, we've not had the success that we wanted to have. But it's been a fun team to be around because they went to the practice field and worked. It's very rewarding to see a group of guys that do that get rewarded at the end."

Game notes

Phillips to return for 2012

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart issued another public vote of confidence for Phillips before the game, then followed that up with a letter addressed to fans on minutes after Kentucky had beaten Tennessee.

"Today's victory reinforces the belief of Dr. Capilouto and I that Head Coach Joker Phillips continues to be the right fit to lead our football program," Barnhart said in the letter. "Although this season certainly fell short of our expectations, today we celebrate a victory that has eluded this program for 26 seasons."

Barnhart has issued several public statements throughout the season backing Phillips as head coach. Barnhart was athletics director when Phillips was named head coach in waiting following the 2007 season.
"As I do after each season, I will follow up on our regular, in-season conversations with a more formal and thorough review of all aspects of our football program and address any needs after that meeting with Coach Phillips," Barnhart also said in the letter.

Senior moments

Several Kentucky seniors made major impacts in the final game of their career. Senior safety Winston Guy tied a season-high with 14 tackles and combined for a sack on Tennessee's final drive with fellow senior Luke McDermott.

Senior safety Taiedo Smith, making his first start of the season, made the game-clinching interception. Senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed had an interception in the third quarter as Tennessee was driving that likely took points off the board for the Volunteers.

A pair of seniors who have had monster years chipped in also. Senior punter Ryan Tydlacka had nine punts, averaging 43.6 yards. Senior linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the SEC in tackles, had eight stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. He also broke up two passes.

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