Mark Story: Is UK's Air Raid sequel a bit snakebit?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 13, 2013 

When Hal Mumme installed the original Air Raid at Kentucky in 1997, it was a charmed season.

The coach inherited the most ballyhooed quarterback recruit ever produced in the commonwealth, chap by the name of Tim Couch, who just happened to be perfect for a pass-happy offense.

Couch went on to throw for 3,884 yards and 38 touchdowns and the Air Raid electrified The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans.

This fall, Neal Brown's attempt to bring the Air Raid attack back to where it first gained fame seems to be operating under a QB curse.

A week ago at South Carolina, after an early season filled with QB alternating, Jalen Whitlow seemed to finally seize control of the UK quarterback position. The sophomore from Prattville, Ala., led the Wildcats to 21 fourth-quarter points as UK made things exciting before falling 35-28.

So, in a season in which UK seems destined for a quarterbacking muddle, Whitlow made it through exactly two series Saturday night against No. 1 Alabama before he was knocked from the game with an ankle injury.

Looking every bit like a team capable of making a big run at a fourth BCS championship in the past five years, Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) pulverized Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) 48-7 before a Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 69,873.

The game actually was not as close as the final score. Bama outgained UK a devastating 668-170.

Nick Saban's Tide ran a whopping 80 plays. Exactly one of them went for negative yardage.

Perhaps most distressing for UK, the injury to Whitlow's left ankle thrust the Kentucky quarterback situation back into uncertainty. ESPN2 reported during the game he would be out for a least two weeks. Kentucky's next game is 12 days away, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State.

"I think the X-rays were negative," UK offensive coordinator Brown said. "I saw the video of the replay, (Whitlow's ankle) got tangled up under him pretty good."

With Whitlow out, Maxwell Smith was thrust into full-time action against perhaps the best defense in the country. Coming into the game, the Kentucky offensive plan of attack had been built around the mobile Whitlow's ability to make plays with his feet.

"We had a lot of quarterback run game in the game plan," Brown said. "... And we were going to use the quarterback run game and use some of that as decoys, too."

That was not possible with Smith, a pure drop-back passer. Following a week when Whitlow got the overwhelming majority of quarterback repetitions in Kentucky's practices, the former UK starter struggled mightily.

Smith went 7-of-16 passing for 76 yards. He did join Johnny Manziel as the only QB this season to throw a touchdown against Alabama with a 30-yard scoring toss to Javess Blue. Smith was also victimized by several drops.

"Max did not get as many reps as he had been getting (when UK was alternating QBs earlier this season)," Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. "That was a very tough situation for Max to go into against that defense."

Since he wasn't getting as much work in practice, Smith said he tried to stay sharp this past week by watching extra video of Alabama.

"I was seeing everything I expected, they're just a very good team," Smith said of Alabama. "We did have some people open. But when we did, either I didn't make the play or the guys (who were open) didn't make the play. We just didn't make enough plays."

Going forward, Kentucky now has some extra time before it faces Mississippi State.

If Whitlow's ankle does not heal in time to be in the quarterback mix, UK will be in an interesting situation.

Smith has been injury prone in his Kentucky career, knocked out for both the 2011 and '12 seasons by shoulder and ankle injuries. But if Whitlow can't go, the only other two scholarship quarterbacks on the Kentucky roster are sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Reese Phillips.

UK is trying to redshirt both.

What if something happens to Smith in Starkville?

The seventh game of the season — which Mississippi State will be — is awfully late to pull a redshirt. Still, given the way Kentucky's quarterback muddle has gone this year, worst-case scenarios keep playing out.

It's certainly been opposite of the situation with the original Air Raid and Couch.

Brown was asked if he felt snakebit at the quarterback position in 2013.

"I don't know about snakebit," he said. "I know this: We're not playing well enough as a unit and we're not playing well enough at that position."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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