Turnovers doom UK in 38-20 loss to Alabama

ccosby@herald-leader.comOctober 4, 2009 

By the time the first quarter ended against Florida last week, Kentucky was behind 31-0.

When the first-quarter horn sounded against No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, Lones Seiber had just sent a 49-yard field goal through the uprights to bring the Cats to within 7-6. So, whatever UK Coach Rich Brooks did to shake his team out of its early doldrums obviously worked.

UK stood toe-to-toe with the rough-and-tumble Crimson Tide for most of the first half. It had some success running the ball and forced Alabama into a trio of three-and-outs.

But just before halftime, the same kind of meltdown that took Kentucky out of the Florida game struck again.

Alabama scored two touchdowns during a 19-second span late in the second period to take a 21-6 lead into halftime, and the Tide ended up coasting to a 38-20 win.

The final stat sheet didn't look that bad. Alabama held only a 352-301 edge in total yardage. But the Wildcats were undone by four turnovers, three of which came on consecutive possessions near the end of the second quarter and the start of the third.

"The formula was there," Brooks said. "We ran the ball effectively enough. We didn't throw it as well as I wanted, but the thing that eventually cost us the game was mistakes. You could say that some of them were forced, which they were, but four turnovers is not the formula you need with no takeaways to beat the No. 3 team in the nation."

The Cats looked as if they might even take the lead midway through the second quarter. Alabama was nursing a 7-6 lead and was pinned deep in its territory when Micah Johnson took tailback Trent Richardson down for what looked like a safety. But officials ruled that Richardson's knee went down just outside the goal line, which was confirmed by instant replay.

UK then allowed Alabama to march 97 yards to take a 14-6 lead with 40 seconds left before halftime.

Kentucky took over at its 42 and tried to make something happen rather than run out the clock.

Quarterback Mike Hartline completed a short pass over the middle to Derrick Locke, but Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain punched the ball away from Locke right into the hands of Courtney Upshaw, who took it 45 yards for a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining.

"That was a real killer because about five or six minutes earlier, it appeared we might have taken the lead," Brooks said. "But it wasn't quite to be, and then they make that big drive and get a cheap one after that."

Kentucky might have sown the seeds of self-destruction earlier when it squandered good field position on two consecutive drives that started at midfield with three-and-out possessions.

"That was huge," Brooks said. "We needed to convert something and try to get some points on the board because you're not going to get much better field position than that, and our defense was doing a great job. We couldn't capitalize, and that was a key thing."

The Cats' troubles continued at the start of the third quarter. Under pressure, Hartline threw a pass over the middle that was picked off by McClain, and Mark Ingram scored on a 32-yard run two plays later to make it 28-6 at the 13:43 mark.

"We managed to turn a pretty good football game into a terrible football game in a matter of six minutes," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said.

"It kind of hurts because we were right there, and we just gave it away again," senior tailback Alfonso Smith said.

"We made a couple of mistakes, and the game just got away from us," senior left tackle Zipp Duncan said.

Hartline was intercepted on the next series, too, as his pass was deflected by McClain and picked off by Eryk Anders, leading to a 36-yard Leigh Tiffin field goal and a 31-6 lead.

Kentucky managed a couple of second-half TDs to keep things from getting too out of hand. Hartline connected on a 45-yard pass to Randall Cobb, and Smith scored on a 2-yard run to make it 38-20 early in the fourth quarter.

UK was snowed under by early penalties and blunders against Florida last week, and the start of the Alabama game was eerily similar.

Javier Arenas took the opening kickoff 60 yards to the UK 38, and a personal foul set up the Tide at the 17. Ingram scored on an 11-yard run just 57 seconds into the game.

Hartline was intercepted by Mark Barron on UK's first possession, giving Alabama the ball at the Cats' 37. But the Kentucky defense showed some early mettle by forcing the Tide to punt after a three-and-out. Seiber then connected on a career-long 49-yarder to make it 7-3 with 6:32 left in the first quarter.

The Wildcats forced Alabama into two more three-and-outs, and Seiber added his second 49-yarder to trim to deficit to one.

After the game, Kentucky earned high praise from Alabama Coach Nick Saban, whose team improved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference.

"I give their players a lot of credit for the way they played today, the way they competed," Saban said. "They played hard and with a lot of toughness. They ran the ball on us as well as anybody probably has for a while, and I think they deserve a lot of credit. They were very physical."

Kentucky must now brace itself for two straight SEC road games, at South Carolina and Auburn.

"We've got to go on the road now and steal a couple of wins," Brooks said. "We can still do some damage. I still think we're a decent football team and, if we can clean up our mistakes, I think we've got a shot going forward against just about anybody we line up against. But we can't continue to make the mistakes we made today."

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