Nick Saban and Alabama saw a weakness and they pounced on it.
“We wanted to attack the ball, especially on the quarterback,” the head coach said of UK starter Stephen Johnson. “I thought he was a little loose with the ball. I thought the players did a good job of noticing that today.”
Alabama caused Johnson to cough up the ball three times, including two the Crimson Tide recovered in their 34-6 victory over Kentucky at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.
The Alabama coach thought one of those fumbles was a turning point in the game.
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Trying to extend the play, Johnson had the ball dislodged, and Alabama defender Ronnie Harrison scooped it up and took it 55 yards for the touchdown to give the Tide a 17-3 advantage midway through the second quarter.
“That was a big momentum swing for us,” Saban noted. “That’s what we work on — trying to strip the ball out — every day in practice, and that will be something that we can show the other players.
“When you do it correctly you certainly have a chance to get the kind of consequences that you like and get the ball out.”
Those miscues might serve as a teaching tool for Alabama in a good way, but they’ll also serve as a teaching tool for Kentucky, too.
Johnson’s two lost fumbles equaled turnovers No. 13 and 14 for a UK offense that has turned the ball over more times this season than all but two other teams: Bowling Green (15) and Duke (17).
It’s something that has to change and will change, UK Coach Mark Stoops said after the loss.
“We talked about it all week, about not being back there dancing around with the ball,” Stoops said. “You’ve got to make quick decisions and you certainly need to protect the ball.”
Coaches and Johnson said they’re hopeful that some of the slippery-fingers issues will be remedied with more reps. UK opponents have scored more than a third of their points off of Cats miscues this season.
“Just focus on it more in practice,” Johnson said of eliminating the mistakes. “Make sure I’m not running with it outside of my body. Make sure I have it high and tight with my other hand over it to make sure it doesn’t come out.”
Snell show static
Why didn’t Benny Snell, the Southeastern Conference’s rushing touchdown leader going into this week, get more touches on Saturday?
It was a question both Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran fielded on Saturday after the loss.
Part of the game plan was to get the ball to UK’s playmaker more early and more often, Stoops said. But it’s not always that easy.
“We were getting too many three-and-outs, so that’s a big piece of it,” said Stoops, whose team had four three-and-out series in the loss. “We weren’t getting enough plays. Once again, you’ve seen that as you guys ask me questions about different people. When you’re not getting a lot of plays you’re not getting a lot of touches.”
There was a certain package for Jojo Kemp, which he ran to perfection, and getting carries for Boom Williams is a necessity, Gran said.
“Jojo got in there and got us four first downs and ran the ball hard and we need that to happen,” Gran said of Kemp, who led UK with 10 carries for 39 yards. No running back has managed more than 52 yards against the Crimson Tide this season.
Both Stoops and Gran said they’d like to see Snell get more touches earlier, but part of it is Snell still learning how to pick up the other nuances of the position..
“There’s stuff throughout the week when we’re getting a freshman prepared. There’s a lot for him,” Gran said of Snell, who finished with eight carries for 38. “He’s grown. He’ll be fine. Benny will get plenty of carries as we get here for the next 8-9 weeks.”
For his part, Snell said he just wants to be ready as soon as he’s asked to go in the game.
“I expect to get the ball when my number is called and that’s all I can really do,” he said. “That’s all I can really do and that’s my job.”
‘Playing a lot better’
Without prompting, Alabama’s Saban weighed in on some of the issues plaguing Kentucky, noting he was impressed with the turnaround he’s seen in the team since the loss to Southern Miss.
“Kentucky has got a much better team than what everybody gives them credit for, especially in the last couple weeks, when they’ve sort of been trying to run the ball and do what they can do very well,” Saban said of UK’s run game, which finished with 72 yards, about 5 yards better than opponents are averaging against the Crimson Tide so far this season.
Kentucky’s 2.0 yards per carry on Saturday was slightly lower than the 2.4 yards per carry averaged by Alabama’s other opponents.
The UK defense held Alabama to a season-low 34 points, well under its average of 46.5 points a game, best in the Southeastern Conference.
Coming into the game, the Cats had allowed opponents to average 35.3 points per game.
“Their defense has played a lot better, and I think that was certainly the case today,” Saban continued. “So you’ve got to give them a little bit of credit. You’ve got to give Mark (Stoops) a lot of credit for bringing his team back that way so that they’re playing hard and actually playing a lot better.”
News and notes
Two key Kentucky players on offense, wideout Dorian Baker (hamstring) and left tackle Cole Mosier (ankle), did not make the trip to Tuscaloosa.
▪ Defensive end Alvonte Bell also did not make the trip, with Stoops saying afterward that the junior was serving a one-game suspension and would be back for Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)