LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) The opportunity Drew Barker has waited his career for at Kentucky might be one that helps save the Wildcats' season.
The redshirt freshman will make his first start at quarterback for the Wildcats (4-6) Saturday night against Charlotte (2-8). He'll try to help Wildcats end their five-game losing streak and maintain their fading hopes of earning a postseason bid.
Kentucky faces a similarly hungry 49ers squad looking to end an eight-game skid, eliminating any chance of the Wildcats looking past Charlotte toward next week's finale against in-state rival Louisville.
Kentucky's focus is on getting back on the winning track behind a new signal caller.
''We have to win these next two or we're going to be home on Christmas break,'' said Barker, who replaces junior Patrick Towles. ''This is definitely big. This is the first game in the way and we have to win this to get win No. 5 and then get win No. 6.''
The northern Kentucky native arrived with a lot of expectations last year as the Wildcats' QB of the future and battled Towles hard before losing a close competition in fall camp. Barker had played sparingly but replaced Towles briefly last week at Vanderbilt and completed five of eight passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.
He followed with a second-quarter interception followed that was returned 30 yards for a TD and eventually gave way to Towles in the second half of the 21-17 loss. But Barker showed enough potential for coach Mark Stoops to give him his first start.
Barker's mission is beating a Charlotte team navigating its first season as a Football Bowl Subdivision member in Conference USA and just its third playing football. Kentucky marks the 49ers' first Power 5 conference opponent.
''We're going to up there and give it the best shot we got,'' Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said.
Stoops meanwhile has been encouraged by Barker's command of the huddle as the starter and looks forward to his handling of a must-win situation.
''He seems more comfortable, he seems more confident and I'm excited to watch him play,'' Stoops said Thursday. ''I know the team is and I know Drew is. He has worked hard.''
Here are some other things to look for when Charlotte visits Kentucky:
GET IT RIGHT: Kentucky has room to grow after the Vandy loss featured mistakes such as failing twice to score near the goal line, giving up a touchdown on a trick play and throwing two interceptions. Stoops said the team remains positive but stressed that improvement is needed everywhere, even strategy. ''We will coach better. We'll make better decisions,'' he said this week. ''You'll play better. We'll get this done. We are all in this together.''
GOLDEN RUSHER: Charlotte got some good news this week when an MRI revealed that junior RB Kalif Phillips sustained only a bruised knee early in last week's 30-27 overtime loss at UTSA. He returns to action needing just 39 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for the second straight season.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Kentucky has steadily improved since allowing 586 yards at Mississippi State, yielding an average of 95 fewer yards per game the past three weeks. The Wildcats allowed just 301 at Vandy, their second-lowest outing this season.
SMALL STEPS: The 49ers have taken their lumps as expected at the FBS level but last week's conference loss to UTSA was also their third by 10 points or less. Lambert remains upbeat about the program's potential and said ''each week we've shown that we can compete at this level.''
DRESS WARMLY: Other than an occasional shower, the elements have spared Kentucky at home this season. That could change drastically this weekend with a forecast of temperatures approaching the 30s by kickoff and the possibility of the season's first snowfall.
AP College Football: www.collegefootball.ap.org