UK Football

Kentucky will try to shake off road woes at Alabama

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops late in the gameas the University of Kentucky played The University of Florida in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fl., Saturday, September 10, 2016. This was fourth quarter action in the first SEC football game for both teams. Florida won 45-7.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops late in the gameas the University of Kentucky played The University of Florida in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fl., Saturday, September 10, 2016. This was fourth quarter action in the first SEC football game for both teams. Florida won 45-7. cbertram@herald-leader.com

It’s no secret that Kentucky has hit some bumps on the road.

Since 2012, UK has won just one true road game, and the Cats have lost the others by an average of more than three touchdowns (21.9 points).

The most recent loss, a 45-7 pasting at Florida on Sept. 10, left a specifically harsh taste in Kentucky’s mouth.

The UK offense managed just 149 total yards, gained only 3.1 yards per play and was held to nine first downs.

The UK defense allowed Florida 564 total yards and nearly 7 yards per play, gobbling up 28 first downs.

So maybe Kentucky (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) won’t beat top-ranked Alabama with its eye-popping number of national titles and five-star recruits, but the players don’t want to walk out of Bryant-Denny Stadium feeling like they didn’t give it their best shot.

“The last time we went into a tough environment, we didn’t respond very well,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “Hopefully, we’ll handle that better. If there is adversity … we have to be able to handle it better and hopefully we learn from that Florida game and we’ll respond better.”

The head coach hasn’t shied away from reminding his team just how poorly it played against the Gators. He’s addressed it all week.

“They know in the back of their head they didn’t play well on the road and we have to be a lot better,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

The bad loss to the Gators has been at the front of their minds all week, and they want to show that they have a better showing in them on Saturday on ESPN in prime time.

“We all want to go out there and do the best we can and as an offense move the ball efficiently, as a defense stop everybody on their side of the ball, too,” said quarterback Stephen Johnson, who will make his first road start. “We want to go out there and just do our best however it’s possible that we can.”

Johnson got in the game late against the Gators and led UK on its lone touchdown drive of that game, which his coaches think will help shoo away some of the inevitable butterflies.

“He’s been in a hostile environment, got to experience that and drove our team down at the end and scored a touchdown, which was really good experience that we got and that will help him at Alabama without a doubt,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.

Alabama isn’t just any environment. The Crimson Tide have won 22 of their last 23 games at home. Alabama (4-0, 1-0) has lost to UK just twice in the 39 times the two teams have met and both of those were in Lexington (1997 and 1922).

Kentucky’s players know the odds are against them, but they want to make sure they don’t walk away with regrets.

“We don’t have nothing to lose, which is why we’re going to go out there and give it all we got,” said linebacker Denzil Ware, an Enterprise, Ala., native.

“At the end of the day, we have something to prove to ourselves, that we’re not scared and we want our respect. We have to go out there and earn our respect every Saturday.”

Fleet-footed freshman

For the second straight week, Kentucky will take on a speedy freshman quarterback with the ability to run.

This time it’s Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and he’s not your average freshman, Stoops said.

“He’s extremely talented … he looks very poised back there,” Stoops said of Hurts, a 6-foot-2, 209-pounder who has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 727 yards. “He’s got a big, big, big-time arm and looks good with what they do and how they keep you off-balance. It’s a challenge.”

Hurts has passed for five touchdowns and run for three. Of Alabama’s 32 explosive plays (ones that go for 20 or more yards), Hurts has been a part of 13.

The freshman is one in a long line of versatile quarterbacks that UK has had to face, but he can’t be their sole focus, Ware said.

“Their quarterback’s a great player,” the sophomore said. “He’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. We’ve played against Lamar Jackson, who’s considered to be the next Michael Vick.

“I’m just worried about UK and our football team. … They’re the No. 1 team. We know they’re a great team and we respect them.”

Stumble out of the gate

Maybe this isn’t the week to bring it up, but Kentucky’s offense has been a slow starter. Not a single opening drive this season has lasted longer than three plays.

Two have ended in punts and two have ended in turnovers (interception against New Mexico State and fumble against South Carolina). The Cats have started three of their four games in a hole.

The hope is that UK can jump start the offense early and not begin the game in a hole on the road like it did at Florida where the Cats opened with three plays for minus-1 yard and a dazed quarterback in Drew Barker.

“As you know it’ll be extremely difficult,” Stoops said of facing Alabama’s defense. “We need to understand, with the mindset going into it, how difficult yards are going to be to come by and how you need to compete to get those yards.”

Keep an eye on

One under-discussed part of Alabama’s success this season has been its ability to score points in myriad ways.

For instance, the Crimson Tide are one of just three schools in the country to have scored on punt returns twice this season, including a 75-yarder last weekend.

Alabama has just three interceptions this season, but it has returned two for touchdowns. The Crimson Tide also have had two fumble returns for scores.

“They score more non-offensive touchdowns than anybody,” Stoops said of the Tide, who have a nation’s-best six non-offensive scores. “They create a lot of big plays with their defense and with their special teams. So you’ve just got to be smart with the way you manage the game.”

It means UK needs to take better care of the ball than it has so far. There is currently just one team in the country (Bowling Green) that has more turnovers than Kentucky’s 12 this season.

▪  Two key connections could factor into this game. First, is former Madison Southern star Damien Harris, who has been the go-to running back for Alabama this season. He suffered a sprained ankle last week, but could see minutes against the Cats on Saturday.

And then there’s Derrick Ansley, who left his job coaching the UK secondary, to take the same job at Alabama in February. There’s no concern about Ansley, who is in the box for games, knowing Kentucky’s calls, though.

“Our signals are different,” Stoops said. “They already changed. He knows what we do and what our basic philosophies are.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

UK scores, schedule

(Home games in capital letters)

Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)

Sept. 10: At Florida (L, 45-7)

Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO ST. (W, 62-42)

Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA (W, 17-10)

Oct. 1: At Alabama, 7 p.m.

Oct. 8: VANDERBILT, 4 p.m.

Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 29: At Missouri

Nov. 5: GEORGIA

Nov. 12: At Tennessee

Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY

Nov. 26: At Louisville

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