I’ll be honest, I half-expected Kentucky to be down by 14 already against Alabama when I finally changed the channel over from the wild Tennessee/Georgia match-up that resulted in a last-second Hail Mary touchdown and victory for the Volunteers.
But once I did change the channel, the Kentucky Wildcats’ defense that has been constantly questioned and ridiculed throughout the season, actually forced a turnover by downs in the first drive by the Crimson Tide.
The ‘Cats put forth a respectable effort in Tuscaloosa, held Nick Saban’s squad to its lowest point total so far this year, and managed to escape without any major injuries. Here’s a look at what they’re saying after UK’s 34-6 loss vs. Alabama:
Alabama beat USC 52-6.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) October 2, 2016
And USC was supposed to be a top 25 team at the beginning of the season.
"I really think I've seen some marked improvement with this defense." @JeffPiecoro on broadcast. Says young D is adjusting to speed of CFB— UK Sports Network (@UKRadioNetwork) October 2, 2016
Couldn’t agree more. Need the defense to step up even more over the next four weeks.
Vandy is another one of those game of the year...games for Stoops. Pretty simple, UK has to beat Vandy and they can.— alan cutler (@cutler18) October 2, 2016
I still have the bad taste in my mouth from last year’s crushing loss to Vanderbilt. Beat them and keep the bowl bid dream alive.
Happy with that outcome. Not great by any means but not embarrassed either. Could be a new Cats team. Will find out this week. #BBN— jared lorenzen (@JaredLorenzen22) October 2, 2016
I pray the ‘Throwboy’ is right.
Mark Stoops: “Felt like we did some better things in this game. The bad thing is we’re still capable of so much more."— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) October 2, 2016
Not having to apologize to fans after a road loss is a step in the right direction.
Jonathan Allen: "That's probably one of the most physical games I've played since I was in college. I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit"— Ben Jones (@BW_Jones) October 2, 2016
And Jonathan Allen is pretty freakin’ good.
Alabama’s Nick Saban: “Kentucky has a much better team than what everybody gives them credit for."— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) October 2, 2016
Some strong praise from the best coach in the game right now. Kentucky’s coach now has to translate that praise into victories.
Two toxic turnovers, fumbles by Stephen Johnson, the junior college quarterback making his first FBS road start, torpedoed the Cats’ cause in the first half.
The first came after Kentucky had recovered an Alabama fumble at the Crimson Tide 43-yard line with 6:44 left in the first quarter. Kentucky drove to the 22 — missed a scoring chance when Johnson’s pass for a wide-open C.J. Conrad was knocked down at the line of scrimmage — only to have the UK quarterback lose the ball while being sacked.
It was a play of an inexperienced quarterback. Instead of taking the sack to keep Kentucky in field goal range, Johnson tried to extend the play and ended up losing the ball. And Kentucky lost its chance to score.
In the second quarter, Alabama did a scoop-and-score. Again, Johnson was sacked. Again, Johnson lost control of the football. Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison gathered up the loose ball and headed 55 yards in the other direction for a 17-3 Crimson Tide lead with 6:56 left before halftime.
Eventually, the side with far more talent and considerably more depth dropped the hammer. Still, a Kentucky defense that allowed an average of 50.3 points and a minimum of 500 yards in its first three games gave up a season-low 34 points and not-terrible 488 yards to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, which came in averaging 46.5 points.
Who’d have predicted that? Certainly not the overwhelming majority of gamblers who bet on Bama to cover a 35½-point spread.
Few would’ve guessed the Cats could hold the Tide – who rushed for 242 yards against Southern California and 334 against Ole Miss – to 173 yards on the ground. Hardly domination, and it came with leading rusher Damien Harris limited to 2 carries because of injury, but better than expected.
Kentucky had allowed an average of 243 rushing yards in its first three games, then shut down South Carolina (91 yards) in last week’s win. That was Stoops’ second game taking a more active role in the defense, and the Wildcats continued to show growth in his third.
For the second straight game, there was a legitimate pass rush: 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries. For the second straight game, Kentucky contained a mobile QB, previously its Kryptonite.
Jalen Hurts came in averaging 62.8 rushing yards per game but managed just 25 on 9 carries (2.8 per) against the Cats. South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain got 11 yards on 13 carries the week before.
247 Sports’ Alex Fortner focused on the lack of touches for star running back Benny Snell, who carried the ball just eight times for 38 yards.
Head coach Mark Stoops blamed UK's turnovers and lack of first downs for limiting the Cats' offensive opportunities.
"Benny was in the game plan for the entire game. No. 1, we were getting too many three-and-outs, so that’s a big piece of it. We weren’t getting enough plays," Stoops said. "When you’re not getting a lot of plays you’re not getting a lot of touches. We do need to get him in there and get him started, but we had some designated plays for Jojo that he’s better at, certain packages, certain plays, and then we wanted to get Benny in there. We need to and we’ll do that."
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran echoed that sentiment, adding that Williams has changed games in the past with his explosiveness, and that Kemp is better in certain packages.
"Benny’s going to get his touches. Benny’s going to be just fine," Gran said. "There’s stuff throughout the week when we’re getting a freshman prepared. There’s a lot for him. And he’s grown. He’ll be fine. Benny will get plenty of carries as we get here for the next 8-9 weeks."
Special teams: A
This has been Kentucky’s most consistent unit all season long, and the special teams did its job again Saturday.
Junior kicker and Alabama native Austin MacGinnis made both of his field goals from 45 and 30 yards after entering with just 1 make on 2 attempts for the season.
Freshman punter Grant McKinniss drilled a 61-yard punt in the second quarter. He averaged almost 45 yards per punt over 6 tries.
Junior receiver Jeff Badet had a 31-yard kick return down the sideline and the Kentucky kick and punt coverage teams held a dangerous Alabama return game in check.
Finally, the Courier-Journal’s John Hale provided a few more quotes from Coach Stoops and two key Kentucky players that should leave fans with a bit of encouragement looking ahead to next week vs. Vandy.
UK hosts Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2) next Saturday. After a bye week, the Wildcats return to Commonwealth Stadium against a Mississippi State team (2-2, 1-1) that already lost to South Alabama. The three-game stretch ends with a trip to Missouri (2-3, 0-2).
Just don’t expect Stoops to look that far ahead.
“I’m worried about the next one, honestly,” he said. “That’s what I just told them: It will be a late trip. We’ll get home late tonight, and they have to do their part to get treatment and to get rest tomorrow so we can get back working and have a great Monday.”
How Stoops’ team responds to the Alabama performance could be key in the ultimate outcome of the season.
“This game gave us a chance to see where were are, where we can grow,” Jones said. “As long as we don’t hold this loss or think that we’re good because we held them to their lowest point total, then I think we’ll be good moving forward.”
Now the team will put try to turn the hope into wins starting with Vanderbilt.
“No game is bigger than the other games for us,” junior running back Boom Williams said. “We’re going to go out there and treat it just like another game. We’ve just got to go out there, execute and be the team that we know we can be. We’ve got to have all 11 guys do their job on all parts of the game, and I think we’ll be very successful.”