The Kentucky Wildcats are back in Commonwealth Stadium this weekend for the first of two home games to wrap up their regular season.
Those two games must end with wins if the 'Cats are to make it to bowl eligibility and keep playing into the postseason. That begins Saturday with Charlotte coming to town. The 49ers hail from Conference USA after being an independent for the past few years. They're still making the transition to becoming a legitimate Division I program, which explains why they're in the midst of a 2-8 season and have struggled to compete with other D-I programs.
After opening the season with wins over Georgia State and Presbyterian, the 49ers have lost eight straight games with only two of them coming by one score. Their most recent loss was actually their closest one as they went into overtime with UT-San Antonio before falling 30-27.
This will be the first collegiate start for Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker, who replaces Patrick Towles after the 'Cats have lost six straight and are now looking at the possibility of another bowl-less season. A four-star prospect in the 2014 class, Barker was the highest-rated recruit in Kentucky’s class by Rivals.com and arguably the biggest get of the Mark Stoops era.
The Conner High School star was viewed as the QB of the future for UK when he chose the 'Cats over South Carolina, Miami and others, but after enrolling early for the '14 spring semester he was unable to win the starting job as a true freshman and redshirted in his first season on campus. He's since been pushing Towles for the job, and after playing sparingly in the past two games, will now get his first college start.
Like Kentucky, Charlotte has had uncertainty and change at the quarterback position, which means UK should expect to see more than one 49er throwing passes in this one. Charlotte has played three quarterbacks: Lee McNeill, Matt Johnson, and Brooks Barden. Combined they’ve completed 171 passes for 1844 yards with 10 touchdowns vs. 21 interceptions.
Johnson is arguably the best of the three and is a dual-threat runner. He's accounted for seven scores vs. eight interceptions this season while completing a team-high 55.6% of his passes. Whoever is throwing the ball, Austin Duke is likely to be the man catching them. He leads the team with 47 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. The speedy 5-10, 161-pound receiver will be an interesting matchup for UK's longer and athletic corners to cover since they're used to seeing bigger and more physical SEC receivers.
However, Charlotte's best offensive weapon is running back Kalif Phillips, who ranks third in Conference USA in rushing (96.1/gm). Phillips has rushed for over 100 yards in three games this year (159 vs. FAU; 125 vs. Temple; 204 at Old Dominion) with 99 (Marshall) in a fourth. His 204 rushing yards at ODU are a new school record and the first over 200 yards. He’s also just 39 yards shy of his second-straight 1,000-yard season. His 3,113 career yards are 12th among active FBS rushers and give him a career single-season average of 1037.7.
On defense, the 49ers have a solid defensive tackle in Larry Ogunjobi. He is tied for the team lead with 52 tackles and leads the way with 13.5 tackles for loss to go with 2.5 QB sacks. Linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby also has 52 stops to go with 6.5 TFLs and a pair of sacks. Defensive backs Terrance Winchester and Devin Pearson have combined for five interceptions this season.
Here is everything you'll need to watch and follow this game.
CHARLOTTE 49ERS (2-8; C-USA: 0-7) at KENTUCKY WILDCATS (4-6; SEC: 2-6)
When: Saturday, Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky
TV: SEC Network Alternate (Dave Baker; Clint Stoerner)
Radio: Tom Leach (play-by-play), Jeff Piecoro (analyst) and Dick Gabriel (sideline) will have the call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington. It's also available on satellite radio (XM 191 and Sirius 145) or online at UKathleticsgameday.com/football.
Odds: UK enters this game as a 24.5-point favorite with an over/under of 40, according to Odds Shark.
Weather: Per Weather Underground, it's looking like there's a chance of rain and possibly snow: