If 35-point underdog Kentucky was going to have any chance, any chance at all of giving top-ranked Alabama a run for its money Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Cats had to play a clean game. That didn’t happen.
Make no mistake, Kentucky was no match for the No. 1-ranked team in the country, falling 34-6. And truth be told, the Cats were no closer in Mark Stoops’ fourth year as coach to matching up with the Crimson Tide than they were in his first when Kentucky lost 48-7 to Nick Saban and Company at Commonwealth Stadium.
On a realistic level, Kentucky’s goal was to produce a more respectable showing than the pounding the Cats took on a similar stage three weeks ago, losing 45-7 at Florida in a game where the visitors were overwhelmed from start to finish.
And Kentucky might have had more of an opportunity to accomplish that goal had it held on to the football. Two toxic turnovers, fumbles by Stephen Johnson, the junior college quarterback making his first FBS road start, torpedoed the Cats’ cause in the first half.
The first came after Kentucky had recovered an Alabama fumble at the Crimson Tide 43-yard line with 6:44 left in the first quarter. Kentucky drove to the 22 — missed a scoring chance when Johnson’s pass for a wide-open C.J. Conrad was knocked down at the line of scrimmage — only to have the UK quarterback lose the ball while being sacked.
It was a play of an inexperienced quarterback. Instead of taking the sack to keep Kentucky in field goal range, Johnson tried to extend the play and ended up losing the ball. And Kentucky lost its chance to score.
In the second quarter, Alabama did a scoop-and-score. Again, Johnson was sacked. Again, Johnson lost control of the football. Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison gathered up the loose ball and headed 55 yards in the other direction for a 17-3 Crimson Tide lead with 6:56 left before halftime.
Actually, Kentucky benefited from some early bounces. For example, early in the second quarter, Alabama appeared poised to down a punt inside the UK 5-yard line. Instead, the ball rolled right through the legs of a Bama player into the end zone for a touchback.
On defense, Kentucky used various blitzes to bother Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Cats brought linebackers, corners, safeties, you name it. And the true freshman often had to throw the football away to avoid a sack.
Then about midway through the second quarter, Bama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin abandoned attacking the perimeter and concentrated on pounding the rock. A seven-play, 61-yard scoring drive included seven straight runs. Joshua Jacobs’ 1-yard TD run made it 10-3 Bama.
After a burst of ball movement in the first quarter, Kentucky’s offense failed to accomplish much against the Tide’s stellar defense, even when the Cats were holding on to the ball.
Mysteriously, true freshman running back Benny Snell spent more time on the sideline than the field. He didn’t get his first carry until there was less than a minute remaining in the first half. He got a few more carries in the second, but wasn’t the factor he had been the last two weeks.
Not that this was a surprise. Kentucky is simply not on the same level of Alabama when it comes to talent and execution. True, the Tide is on college football’s top shelf, winning three of the past five national titles. But Kentucky still seems stuck on the bottom rung of that same ladder.
Kentucky dropped to 2-3 overall and 1-2 in the SEC with more manageable games ahead. Now 1-14 on the road under Stoops, the Cats return home next Saturday to face Vanderbilt, which dropped to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the SEC with a 13-6 loss to visiting Florida on Saturday.
After that, Kentucky takes a week off before welcoming Mississippi State to Commonwealth Stadium. That’s followed by a trip to Missouri. Those are all games in which this Kentucky team has a chance to win. If it can hold on to the ball.
Kentucky road games under Mark Stoops