Kentucky was a tipped pass away from taking a 10-0 lead in Tuscaloosa, but the ball started to bounce Alabama’s way.
The Cats’ defense stood its ground on the opening drive. They didn’t let Alabama dominate the line of scrimmage. Backed up deep into their own territory, they did not flinch, forcing a turnover on downs.
The offense immediately responded. Boom Williams picked up 10 yards on the ground, C.J. Conrad earned tough yards after the catch and Stephen Johnson delivered a rifle on third down to Tavin Richardson to put the Cats in scoring position. Austin MacGinnis knocked down a 45-yard field goal to draw the first blood.
Somehow, some way, things continued to go Kentucky’s way.
Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts wasn’t on the same page as the rest of his team. Looking to pass, the running back went to take a handoff, knocking the ball out of his hand. De’Niro Laster fell on the ball in Bama territory, giving Kentucky momentum and a scoring opportunity.
Eddie Gran went right at Alabama. After Garrett Johnson broke a big gain on third down, they went for the killshot. Bama bit on the play action pass. C.J. Conrad was WIDE OPEN and could have walked into the end zone, but the pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Johnson was sacked and stripped. Instead of taking a 6-0 or 10-0 lead, the Crimson Tide took the momentum and never gave it back.
The first fumble hurt, but it didn’t kill the Cats. They remained in the game until they received a knockout punch in midway through the second quarter. Trailing 10-3, Johnson was stripped from behind. It was picked up by Ronnie Harrison who took it 55 yards for a touchdown. Johnson would let the ball fall on the turf one more time before the game came to a close.
Mark Stoops was upset Johnson didn’t take better care of the ball in the pocket. “We talked about it all week, about not being back there dancing with the ball.” He added, “The bad thing is we’re still capable of so much more, and that’s what aggravates you.”
Against the No. 1 team in the country, there is no room for error. Although aggravating, Kentucky showed signs of good things to come.
A Battle in the Trenches
Nick Saban’s bread and butter has been in the trenches. On both sides of the ball, Alabama beats up their opponents until they are too demoralized to continue. Down the stretch, you saw signs of fatigue from Kentucky, but that wasn’t the case early.
Sideline reporter Tom Luginbill continually complimented Kentucky’s front seven for using speed to slow down the Crimson Tide. Three weeks ago, nobody thought Kentucky’s front seven could hold their own against a Sun Belt team, let alone Alabama.
Josh Allen was proficient in the pass rush. Jordan Jones was once again a disruptive, explosive force. De’Niro Laster was physical at the point of contact. Eli Brown only had five tackles entering today’s game, but left Tuscaloosa with eight.
On the offensive side of the ball, they attacked Alabama’s future first round picks. Freddie Maggard believes Jonathan Allen is the best defensive player in the country. The defensive end left the game impressed with Kentucky’s young offensive line.
“That’s probably one of the most physical games I’ve played since I was in college. I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit.”
Calvin Ridley Could Not Be Stopped
The defense was formidable up front, preventing one of the nation’s best rushing teams from busting big plays, but they had no answer through the air. Calvin Ridley caught 11 passes for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns. No matter what the defensive backs did, Ridley did as he pleased.
Where was Benny?
In the last two games, true freshman running back Benny Snell’s five powerful touchdowns turned him into a fan favorite. When they needed tough yards, Snell delivered. Tonight, he didn’t deliver, because he didn’t have the ball.
Snell received his first carries on the final two plays of the first half. He had more yards per carry than any other running back (4.8) but only touched it eight times. Some thought they were simply saving his legs for the second half, which makes zero sense when you’re losing by two touchdowns.
Mark Stoops tried to make sense of it after the game. “Benny was in the game plan for the entire game, but there were too many three and outs to get him touches.” That shouldn’t be a problem moving forward. “We need to get Benny in there, and we’re going to,” Stoops said.
A Solid, Sustained Drive
When they faced adversity against Florida, the Cats tucked their head in between their legs. Tonight, they fought back and didn’t stop fighting until the final whistle.
Trailing 34-3 with 14:51 left to play, Kentucky methodically marched down the field. With Jojo Kemp in the Wildcat, he ground up 35 yards in seven plays to take Kentucky into enemy territory. From there, Stephen Johnson showed that he wasn’t rattled after three earlier fumbles, completing passes to Juice and Sihiem King to make sure Kentucky would score once again.
The drive didn’t end with a touchdown, but they ended the game on a high note.
You can’t call a 28-point loss a moral victory, but it wasn’t as bad as the score might say. There are still concerns moving forward — your quarterback can’t put the ball on the ground three times — but the greatest concern from the first two games of the season is gone.
Kentucky has learned how to handle adversity. Instead of letting one bad play turn into two, then ten, they forgot about it and continued to fight. It was not enough to get a win against an overmatched opponent, but it can help salvage Kentucky’s 2016 season.