John Clay

No victory, but no knockout

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In describing his team's task against the Tide, Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks had used the word "bludgeon" and the phrase "bloody your nose," as if Saturday afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium figured to be a 15-round bout with a top championship contender.

And so it was.

Only here's the thing, as hard as Alabama tried, as quickly as it jumped to an early lead, as dominant as it looked at times, even though it squeezed out a 17-14 win by decision, the Crimson Tide could never really deliver the knockout blow.

Not even when it popped a 78-yard touchdown run from Glen Coffee in the first quarter. Not even when it scooped up a Mike Hartline butterfingers ball and scored to make it 14-0. Not even when it was driving to go up by three touchdowns, only to fumble.

Not even when Alabama was clearly the better team, but missed two field goals, and committed a boatload of penalties, and fanned itself into utter frustration.

To go with the boxing analogy, it was almost as if the Tide was George Foreman, swinging away, and UK was Muhammad Ali, taking all the best shots, falling behind on points, yet saving its best for the end.

It almost worked. A cement-shoe offense all afternoon suddenly produced two big third-quarter plays. The second, a 26-yard Hartline screen pass that Dicky Lyons Jr. dashed with into the end zone, carved the Bama advantage to 14-7.

Then when the clock seemed solidly on the Tide's side, there was UK receiver DeMoreo Ford sneaking behind enemy lines with less than a minute to play to gather in a 48-yard touchdown reception, knifing the lead to three points with 40 seconds remaining.

One onside kick away from a miracle. Alas, that onside kick bounded out of bounds.

"Despite the loss, we ended this game on momentum," said defensive end Jeremy Jarmon. "It wasn't like they scored those 14 points late and there was nothing we could do about it. We ended this game coming from behind, something that we did last year. We ended this game with a chance to get the ball back, tie the game up and possibly win it. That's a great statement for this program."

It's a declaration of grit. This team isn't last year's team. It doesn't have Andre Woodson and Rafael Little and Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme. It has an offense trying to find itself, matched Saturday against a barbed-wire defense.

But just when you figured that we could still be playing this time next week and Kentucky would not score, the Cats scored, on the Lyons' pass play. Then it tallied again, on the shocking Hartline-to-Ford hook-up inside the final minute.

"Our guys kept battling," said Brooks afterward. "Kept playing hard, kept believing that maybe there was a chance that we could find a way to make something good happen."

But you could tell Brooks is beyond that now. He's not into moral victories, and close doesn't count much with him anymore. He thinks his program has moved beyond that — and he's right — and that Saturday, the way things went, there was a path to victory for his team, even against a superior team.

Yet we shouldn't lose sight that, for better or worse, Alabama is the superior team. The way the polls have it, there's only one better. The Tide's offensive line is possibly the best in all the land. Freshman wide receiver Julio Jones is a flat-out stud. The Tide defense is rock-solid. Bama is young, but Bama is good.

But Kentucky didn't back down, even when it was down, and, with the two biggest games of the year upcoming — home games with South Carolina and Arkansas the next two weeks — there is much to be said for that. The Cats came away kicking themselves for missed opportunities, surely heartened that they went toe-to-toe with the nation's No. 2 team.

And lost not by knockout.

But by decision.