For the Kentucky Wildcats, tonight's game against the Arkansas Razorbacks presents a somewhat exaggerated riff on a familiar theme. Kentucky is no stranger to playing beat up in the SEC. It is a fact of life as the long season takes its toll. I've followed this team for a long time, and followed closely for the last several years, though, and this is about the worst shape I can remember the Cats being in from an injury standpoint. Given that they are quarterbacks, the injuries to Max Smith and Patrick Towles are well chronicled. But the wages of war have hit Kentucky much worse in the secondary, where an almost unfathomable series of events have left the Cats with only 6 dressed players.
This week, starters Martavius Neloms, Ashely Lowrey and Mickie Benton are all out. Dakotah Tyler, a reliable backup, was lost for the season just a week ago. Glenn Faulkner, who was expected to provide depth at safety and surely would have been on the field much of the year, hasn't played a down and will likely redshirt. This is to say nothing of converted RB Marcus Caffey, who was supposed to start at corner and was instead an academic casualty.
Some of you may remember Pigskinaplooza 2011, where I took my son to three games in three days across the south. As evidenced in the link above, we went to watch then commits Daron Blalock and Zach Blalock play for Walton High School on the second leg of the trip. Though they were and are excellent football players, if you told me they'd be starting at Kentucky-side by side at safety-by this season's sixth game, I would not have believed you.
That is where Kentucky finds itself today.
The good news is that this is not the Arkansas Razorbacks team we were expecting to see at the beginning of the season. Before righting the ship against Auburn last week, the Hogs looked like the SEC's worst team. Despite having one of the nation's best QBs in Tyler Wilson, and highly touted RB in Knile Davis, the Hogs sit at 2-4 with a number of embarrassing losses (blowouts against Alabama and Texas A&M and a shocker to Louisiana-Monroe) on their resume. Still Kentucky enters this game as 17 point dogs.
I expect a better game than that from Kentucky today. Here is a quick look.
WHEN KENTUCKY HAS THE BALL
Jalen Whitlow will have to be the man today. Going into a hostile environment with a freshman in the SEC is never fun, but the Arkansas defense is about the best remedy for that Cats fans could hope for. Simply put, they've been atrocious. Discounting the Auburn game (have you seen them play offense this year?) the Razorbacks are giving up 40 points a game. Granted, Alabama hung 58 on the Hogs, but even Jacksonville St. put up 24.
As always, the trick for Kentucky will be moving the chains. The team is not built for a quick strike with Whitlow at the helm, but between him, Raymond Sanders and Jonathon George, Kentucky has the legs to move the ball against the Razorbacks. Mix in some a reverse or two and some play action, and I think that we'll be able to move the ball between the 20s today. The Red Zone might be a different matter, as the timing of the passing game is close quarters isn't quite there and Kentucky still lacks a reliable big back to punch the ball in. I was pleased to see a Whitlow scramble for a TD off of a naked bootleg last week. That needs to be the ticket tonight.
If the Cats string together a few three and outs, this game will be over before it begins. Because. . .
WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL
John L. Smith isn't a coaching genius, but game planning for the Cats today shouldn't be too complicated. Today should be a track meet. The Razorbacks will throw first, throw often and throw deep. WIlson isn't having the kind of year anyone expected, but he is still a top flight QB. Davis, on the other hand, has been a huge disappointment, averaging only 3.2 yards a carry and hitting paydirt only twice. He is not the runner he was prior to sitting out last season with a knee injury.
Truth be told, I think that the freshman DBs surprise us this week. CB Cody Quinn has already proven he can play, and the Blalock twins are capable and should be energized by getting on the field together. Fred Tiller and J.D. Harmon have played in spurts this year, and, if nothing else, shouldn't be panicked out there. Whether all of this will be enough to stem the tide against Wilson is anyone's guess.
But the defense is not going to win this game. They'll have to find a way not to lose it by at least slowing the Hogs down and hoping that the offense can both put up some points and give them a rest.
To make it clear, I do not expect Kentucky to win this game. There are too many question marks and too many holes that won't be adequately filled. But this isn't shaping up to be the butt whipping it looked like on paper at the beginning of the season. Kentucky hung in there against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs last week. Granted, that was at home, but this Arkansas team does not hold a candle to last week's opponent. Smith's squad will need an upset before the season is done just to make a bowl. They have the lamest duck head coach in D1.
If the Cats get a early lead as they did against South Carolina, will the Razorbacks fold up the tent? Stranger things have happened.
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