Tide wobbles, but Cats can't slam door on upset

ccosby@herald-leader.comOctober 5, 2008 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There was no celebrating or sticking out the chests in the Kentucky locker room after Saturday's narrow 17-14 loss at No. 2 Alabama.

Instead, the Wildcats lamented the plays they didn't make that might have led to one of the biggest wins in school history.

For instance, if David Jones had been able to gather in a fumble at the Alabama 1-yard line with UK trailing 14-7 late in the fourth quarter. Or if Trevard Lindley had held on for an interception after the Cats cut the deficit to seven with their first touchdown of the game. Or if Mike Hartline hadn't lost a fumble that allowed Rolando McClain to walk in for a short touchdown. Or if the defense, which was an iron curtain for most of the game, hadn't been out of position and allowed Glen Coffee to burst up the middle untouched for a 78-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

Kentucky got exactly the formula it needed to pull off the huge upset. The Cats got a big-time performance on defense, holding an Alabama unit that hung 41 on Georgia to just one touchdown. They also picked off a pass, forced a fumble and recovered a muffed punt. But, in the end, they came up one play short.

"There were a lot of plays where if there had been a little something here or a little something there, maybe the result is different," UK Coach Rich Brooks said.

"We could have won the game if we made the plays we usually make," Dicky Lyons Jr. said.

Kentucky got off to a shaky start. After both teams went three-and-out to start the game, the Tide had a big pass completion to freshman Julio Jones negated by an ineligible receiver downfield. But on the very next play, Coffee burst through the middle of the defense and outran the secondary 78 yards for a TD and a 7-0 Alabama lead at the 9:48 mark of the first quarter. It was the first rushing touchdown that the Wildcats allowed this season.

About the only thing the UK defense didn't do with consistency was stop Coffee, who ran for 218 yards on 25 carries.

"Basically we had a guy trying to do too much, and (Coffee) was gone," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "We were a half-step out of position, and that cat was flying. He's a big-time back."

The Wildcats caught a break when Leigh Tiffin missed a 34-yard field goal on Alabama's next possession. But UK squandered it when Hartline dropped back for a screen pass to Derrick Locke only to have the ball slip out his hands as he tried to throw. McClain scooped up the ball at the Kentucky 4-yard line and walked into the end zone for a 14-0 Alabama lead with 1:02 left in the opening period.

Brooks said that was the game's defining play.

"Both teams have had takeaways, but our takeaways were deep in our own territory, and they had a takeaway that resulted in seven points," Brooks said. "You can throw a blanket around everything else, but that was the difference in the game."

Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said the screen play would have gone for big yardage and maybe even a touchdown if Hartline could have gotten rid of the ball.

"Somebody was getting a touchdown out of it," Phillips said. "If Mike could have just gotten it off, it might have been six. They sent the house."

That marked the third time this season that Hartline has lost a fumble by having the ball slip out of his hands as he winds up to throw.

"It's happened three times in five games," Brooks said. "We've got to get that corrected."

"I really can't explain what happens," Hartline said. "I don't know what we can do to fix it. It's a grip problem I guess, but why doesn't it happen the rest of the game. It's tough to explain."

The UK offense finally came alive in the third quarter as Hartline connected on back-to-back screens, the first one a 36-yarder to Locke and the second a 26-yarder that Lyons took in for a score to make it 14-7 with 5:49 left in the third quarter.

On Alabama's next possession, Lindley made a perfect break on a John Parker Wilson pass to Jones but let a potential interception slip to the ground at the Alabama 30.

"I had control of the ball, but then I brought it down to my leg, and it fell," Lindley said. "It could have changed the game."

Alabama had the ball with 10:22 remaining and tried to kill some clock by running the ball, but Coffee coughed it up at the 12 after a 28-yard gain. David Jones had the angle on the recovery near the 1-yard line, and he did what any good coach preaches: fall on the ball instead of trying to scoop it up. But it squirted out of his grasp and out of bounds.

"It just hit me and popped out," Jones said. "It was a play I should have made. I just wanted to fall on it. I had control, and it slipped out."

Tiffin would then kick a 24-yard field goal to give the Tide a 17-7 lead with 2:12 left.

The Cats still weren't done, however, as they climbed to within 17-14 on Hartline's 48-yard TD pass to DeMoreo Ford with 40 seconds remaining. But Lones Seiber's ensuing onside kick went out of bounds to ice the game for the Tide and give the Cats yet another play to ponder.

"He was trying to bounce it on the ground," Brooks said of Seiber's kick. "Obviously, it was a very poor attempt."

Now the Cats must get ready for a pivotal two-game homestand that begins Saturday with a battle against South Carolina.

"I think we had a legitimate shot at them, but they made the plays and we didn't," Brooks said of Alabama. "I was proud of the way our players went in there and battled back. I think we have a very good football team, and we showed it at times. I also think we have some growing pains we need to work through. Now we'll have two home games, and obviously we have to find a way to win a game next week after a very disappointing loss here."

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