Mark Story

Cats need offense to help defense

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In a philosophical moment late in the 2007 season, Rich Brooks held court on the unique challenge of building a program at a traditional football cellar dweller like Kentucky.

The issue, Brooks said, is being able to build a quality offense and a quality defense at the same time.

At the time he spoke, an explosive UK offense had found itself a top-level defense away from a genuinely special season.

On Saturday in the house formerly occupied by the Bear, the 2008 Kentucky defense went a long way toward showing it has become a bona fide Southeastern Conference force.

An Alabama offense that lit up Clemson and pulverized Georgia managed to cross the goal line exactly one time against UK's defenders.

Yet the Wildcats wound up falling, 17-14, on the road to college football's "now" team because the Cats couldn't score.

Not enough.

The Cats couldn't score because, for most of the game, they had next to no hope of moving the football on the ground or through the air.

Which seriously limits a team's options.

In the first quarter, UK tallied 18 total yards on 14 plays. By halftime, the Cats had amassed the massive total of 60 yards.

"Offensively, in the first half, we were not very productive, obviously," Rich Brooks said afterward. "We didn't get much going. Then, we started the third quarter slowly, again."

Not only did Kentucky stall in moving the ball in the first quarter, quarterback Mike Hartline's fumble while trying to pass was scooped up by Rolando McClain and returned 4 yards for a touchdown with 1:02 left in the period.

"A big-time mistake on my part," Hartline said. "That can't happen in games like this."

Said Brooks: "Take everything else and throw a blanket over it; that play was the difference in the game."

In half two, UK started by going three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. Then, given field position at the Bama 37 by Derrick Locke's recovery of a fumbled punt, the UK offense changed things up.

The Cats went four-and-out.

Yet, amid all this futility, the Kentucky defense, the booming punts of Tim Masthay and a surprisingly error-filled Alabama performance kept UK in the game.

Now, five games into a season in which the goal is the historically rare third straight winning season at Kentucky, we know this for sure.

The Cats are not only a competent offense away from a third consecutive bowl trip. They are a dependable "O" away from being a darned good football team.

Whether that kind of offense will show up in time for the two pending SEC home games with South Carolina and Arkansas is crucial to the season's ultimate arc.

Against Alabama, little things killed the Cats. A rare first-half first down was nullified by an illegal-shift penalty. There were the usual allotment of dropped passes (three before halftime). With Kentucky trailing only 14-7 early in the fourth quarter, a second-and-4 at the UK 48 became a second-and-9 after tackle Brad Durham flinched and got called for illegal procedure.

A year ago, with Andre Woodson throwing to a bevy of future NFL receivers, the Cats could overcome such drive-stalling setbacks.

This year, UK can't.

"Killed us. Killed us," Brooks said of the miscues. "We can't have that."

Another issue that continues to plague UK is the lack of any productive wide receiver other than Dicky Lyons Jr.

Five games in, you start to wonder if the bevy of inexperienced wide-outs playing opposite Lyons Jr. have already shown the level they are going to be at this season.

UK compensated Saturday by throwing dump passes to the speedy running back Locke (eight catches for 81 yards).

Those hoping the high ankle sprain of true freshman Randall Cobb will heal quickly so the Tennessee product can supplant Hartline at quarterback are wishing for the wrong outcome.

UK needs the play-making ability of Cobb far more as a receiver.

"If we had another player to stretch the field it would help me so much," Lyons Jr. (six receptions for 63 yards and a TD) said. "It would open up the field for the running game, too."

Expected to carry the UK offense in the pre-season, the Kentucky ground attack continues to be dormant. It accumulated only 35 yards Saturday.

Still, with all the offensive struggles, Kentucky was onside kicking on the road against the No. 2 team in the country with 40 seconds left and had a chance.

The UK defense showed its mettle in one of the SEC's hottest crucibles Saturday.

What can be a very good year rides on whether Brooks and Co. can get their offense up to decent.