UK Football

John Clay: Cats might not roll over against top-ranked Tide

UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow played the entire game and passed for 178 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina on Saturday night.
UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow played the entire game and passed for 178 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina on Saturday night. Herald-Leader

Not often does the defending national champ come to town. Nick Saban doesn't like the word "defending." Every team is different. Not every team is a national champion, however, and Alabama is exactly that and the Crimson Tide visit Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.

Now let's be honest here. We knew this Kentucky football team was not going to win a ton of games. It had a new coach, which means new hope, but it also faced a killer schedule.

So in lieu of victories, we asked but one thing out of Mark Stoops' first year as Kentucky coach: Be competitive.

Three-fourths of the way through the most brutal stretch of UK's 2013 football schedule, wish fulfilled.

The Cats were a 14-point underdog to seventh-ranked Louisville, and Stoops' Troops ended up losing by a pair of touchdowns, 27-13.

Kentucky was a decided underdog to Florida and lost 24-7, and while the final outcome wasn't good, it wasn't the 73-point thrashings or even the 38-0 loss UK suffered in Gainesville in 2012.

Saturday night in Columbia, you had the thought, OK, finally, for the first time, Stoops is about to get smashed. Steve Spurrier's team scored early and often and everyone knows the Old Ball Coach likes to keep his foot on your neck.

Then, what do you know, Kentucky rallied. Down 27-7, the Cats scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, at one point cutting Carolina's lead to 27-21.

Sufficiently startled, South Carolina got back to business, driving 89 yards in seven plays to regain control.

Even then, however, the Kentucky offense mounted another touchdown drive, and though it was a loss when the final horn sounded, it was a respectable loss by the scoreboard definition.

"I think our players showed a lot of character," Stoops said afterward.

The real question with this Kentucky team, at least on offense, has been at quarterback. As in, who's the quarterback? Unable to decide on one, offensive coordinator Neal Brown had been employing two. That rarely works and it had not been working in this case.

So Saturday, Brown started one quarterback, grit his teeth, and stayed with one quarterback.

There's a reason Jalen Whitlow won the job in pre-season and he showed that Saturday. He might not always throw the best ball. He can be inconsistent. When in a groove, however, Whitlow's athletic ability shines through.

Something else revealed itself more clearly Saturday. For all the pre-season hype about the Air Raid offense, this isn't the Air Raid offense, or at least not the one Brown employed at Texas Tech.

During his three years in Lubbock, Brown's offense threw the football 59 percent of the time in 2010, 61 percent in 2011 and 60 percent last year. This year, his offense is throwing the football 48.5 percent of the time.

But then, Brown has never had a quarterback like Whitlow. Through five games, playing mostly part-time, the sophomore has carried the football 46 times. That's just five less than any of his Troy quarterbacks ran the football in either of Brown's two seasons there. It's eight less than Brown's Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege ran the football in all of 2011 and two less than Doege ran it last season.

"With the way we try to stretch the field with our passing game, all the different options that Neal (Brown) can do," Stoops said, "with a guy that can run the ball, it could be a good threat."

Nick Saban knows a thing or two about how to stop offensive threats, and no one is suggesting Kentucky is a juggernaut.

And yet, after the showing at South Carolina, even with the national champions coming to town, there is at least the expectation that Kentucky can be competitive.

That doesn't mean the Cats will be competitive — but they can.

No. 1 Alabama at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN2Records: Alabama 5-0 (2-0 SEC); Kentucky 1-4 (0-2)