Coming into this ballgame, I didn't think UK could win. My prediction was 23-13 'Bama, but in my heart I thought it possible that the Tide could run away and hide. After-all, this same 'Bama team had just destroyed Georgia between the hedges, and Kentucky's offense was mostly, well, offensive. I knew UK's defense was good, but I wasn't sure how good; they simply had not played anyone in the same solar system as Alabama. Put it this way; if someone would have told me before the game that UK would hold Alabama to one offensive touchdown, and a field goal, I would have directed that person to the nearest mental health care specialist. 'Bama had just neatly hung 41 on the 'Dawgs, UK surely couldn't hold them to under 28-30 points, or so I thought. Add those feelings to my total lack of confidence in UK's offensive unit ( versus 'Bama, anyway ), and one can see why I thought, deep down, that Alabama might send UK home 'talkin' to themselves.'
Well, what I thought was wrong. Yes, UK's offense was as anemic as a supermodel in the first half ( they gained a middle school-like 60 yards ), but they rebounded nicely, gaining 216 total yards in the second half along with two touchdowns, and the defense held 'Bama to only 137 second half yards. Down 14-0 at the half, the 'Cats didn't fold, they didn't hang their heads, they came out in the second half and played the #2 team in the country as tough as anyone has, or will.
It just took UK a half to shake the 'Curse of the Bear.'
I nearly threw my television out into the street in the first half, though:
- Dropped passes -- This game, instead of the freshman, two upper class-man ( Tony Dixon and DeMoreo Ford ) let their teammates down with a couple of careless drops. Saturday the drops were even more harmful than the seemingly hundreds of other drops this year, because two of the five drops kept UK from making first downs, and on a day when first downs came at a premium, every opportunity needs to be well executed. Dropping first down passes is simply inexcusable.
- Mental mistakes -- Penalties negating first downs, or putting UK in 2nd or 3rd and long situations; against a defense as formidable as 'Bama's, UK cannot afford negative yardage plays.
- Giving up big plays -- The defense allowed a 78 yard rushing touchdown to Glen Coffee. At that point I thought, "Oh no, here we go." They also allowed a 40 yard pass completion to Julio Jones ( if any of UK's young receivers were thinking that they were the 'cats meow', take a look at Jones, now that guys a pass-catching freak ).
- An inability to run the ball -- 16 yards on 12 carries in the first half, pathetic. It is truly perplexing that UK's O-line can protect Hartline so well, but can't open holes for the runners to scamper through.
- Hartline gift-wrapping a 'Bama touchdown -- That's the third time this year that Hartline has dropped the ball while attempting to pass ... the problem needs to be remedied, stat. After the game Rich Brooks pointed to that play as easily the biggest play of the game.
But through all the stroke-inducing misplays and mistakes, the team came out in the second half focused on playing better, and convinced that they could play with 'Bama. They didn't back down, and they didn't play as if they were intimidated ... they competed:
- The defense was nothing short of spectacular: For the first 12 minutes of the third quarter, UK's defense held Alabama to 24 total yards ( those yards came on four possessions ). They harassed Tide signal-caller John Parker Wilson ( three sacks and countless hurries ) to the point of him having to roll out of the pocket, where he performs as a below average college quarterback ( he was 7 of 17 for 106 yards and a pick ). The secondary blanketed the 'Bama wide-outs ( Trevard Lindley set the UK record for most career pass breakups ) making the road even more difficult for Wilson to navigate.
- Offensively, UK didn't set any records in the second half, but they did score two touchdowns, and gained a respectable 216 yards. At least one aspect of the offense shone brightly in the Alabama sunshine; the pass catching of Derrick Locke ( he lead UK with eight catches for 81 yards ). We heard talk before the game that Locke might be utilized more as a pass catcher, and after seeing the results Saturday, one would think that that offensive innovation will continue. No, he didn't record a single drop. I also like what Joker Phillips has been doing with tight end Maurice Grinter over the last couple of games. My only complaint is that the offense doesn't utilize Grinter's talent enough.
- Mike Hartline, I thought, performed adequately, especially considering he had never played in that type of environment before. The fumble and interception ( which he floated ) hurt the team, but he made several nice throws ( his 23 yard pass to Grinter was a thing of beauty ), ending up with 241 passing yards and two touchdowns ( he would have had at least another 30-40 yards if not for having to suffer through five dropped passes ). My, and many others hope is that at some point Phillips will let Hartline throw long, or at least longer than 20 yards. UK needs to stretch the field a bit or the abysmal running game will continue to disappoint.
- Tim Masthay continues to impress. His booming punts lead to many of 'Bama's drives starting deep in their own territory, and probably saved UK from giving up more points.
The Worm Turns both Ways
Both teams certainly enjoyed some good fortune:
- UK fans got to see the opponents suffer from wanna-kill-the-kicker-itis ( two missed field goals ), that's six points right there.
- UK was also fortunate to recover a 'Bama fumble, just as the Tide were going in to score.
- I also question the offensive pass interference call versus Julio Jones ( which negated a long gain ); the contact looked pretty benign to me.
Conversely, Alabama enjoyed the gift that keeps on giving:
- A four yard fumble recovery for a touchdown; it doesn't get any easier than that.
- I consider UK's dropped passes another stroke of good fortune for 'Bama.
- UK NOT recovering 'Bama's fourth quarter fumble on the UK two yard line was most a most fortuitous break for the Crimson Tide.
Lost opportunities, but also a reason to believe, is what I take away from this game; when one considers that UK was a botched on-side kick away from potentially tying the game, one has to give credit to UK for playing with the #2 team in the country, on their turf. But since the game was only lost by three points, it's the nature of the sport fan to say 'what if.' Instead of asking myself that question, I choose to look ahead. And looking ahead I see a schedule full of teams that aren't nearly as good as Alabama.
It remains to be seen if UK will continue on their current growth arc, but if they do, I like their chances of winning at least three or four more games.
That's what I take away from the 'Bama game.
Thanks for reading, congratulations Alabama, and Go 'Cats!