Word on the Lexington street was that the Kentucky Wildcats were travelling to a Tuscaloosa slaughter house instead of Bryant-Denny Stadium where the entirety of the traveling party would depart T-town in body bags. The Crimson Tide won the football game in dominant fashion; 34-6. However, the young Cats showed resolve while being outmanned by the nation’s top ranked team. I’m not one for moral victories; but understand that a determined effort against an elite opponent can boost player development and team growth.
Here’s what happened:
— Alabama rolled up 488 total yards but was held to its season low point total (34). The Crimson Tide also returned a Stephen Johnson fumble for a touchdown which marked its 7th non-offensive score in 2016.
— True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was pressured early but the UK pass rush significantly decreased as the game continued into the second half. Hurts finished 20-33 for 262 yards, 2 TD’s, but was sacked twice.
— True freshman RB Joshua Jacobs rushed for 100 yards off 16 carries for an average of 6.2 yards per play. Jacobs was a virtual unknown prospect from Oklahoma where he was being recruited mainly by FCS and Division II schools before the Tide started calling. Others showed late interest; Saban got the signature.
— Former 5-star Madison Southern product Damien Harris gained 11 yards in limited action. Harris is Alabama’s starting RB but is still recovering from an ankle injury.
— Nick Saban’s defense was steadily overwhelming. All Americans Jonathon Allen, Tim Williams, and Reuben Foster played like All Americans. Alabama’s extremely talented front seven wreaked havoc along the line of scrimmage and in the Kentucky backfield. It held UK to 161 total yards for the game as it chased, disrupted, and harassed QB Stephen Johnson. Bama finished with 4 QB sacks and 9 tackles for loss.
— Bama was allowing 67.5 rush yards per game. UK ran for 122 which was the most that Alabama has surrendered in 2016: Southern Cal-64, WKU-23, Ole Miss-101, Kent State-82.
1st team All American and I’d argue the best defensive football player in college football DE Jonathon Allen:
“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.”
— UK managed just 6/17 conversions on 3rd down. It allowed 9/14.
— Kicker Grant McKinniss connected on field goals of 30 and 45 yards. McKinniss has regained his stroke after missing the season’s first two FG attempts.
— QB Stephen Johnson was for the most part ineffective. He started the game off efficiently but his passing effectiveness diminished following a missed opportunity to TE CJ Conrad. His numbers were reflective: 13-22, 89 yards, 0 INT’s, 0 TD’s, 4 sacks, and lost 2 more fumbles. However, it’s imperative that it is mentioned that Saturday was Johnson’s first road start. Bryant-Denny is not welcoming to 1st timers.
Stephen Johnson must discontinue his propensity to fumble away the football. After executing the Run/Pass/Option flawlessly against New Mexico State and South Carolina, the junior quarterback seemed predetermined to hand the football off to the running back instead of executing the play’s continuation. Johnson’s RPO decision making and ball security will be critical next Saturday against Vanderbilt.
— Kentucky defensively battled early as the teams were tied 3-3 at the end of the 1st quarter. Alabama eventually wore down the depth deprived Wildcats. But, UK never seemed to surrender as it did early and often in the Swamp. The Wildcat defense was led by sophomore safety Mike Edwards’ 12 tackles followed by Jordan Jones’ 8, and Eli Brown’s 7. UK manufactured 2 quarterback sacks and 4 tackles for loss. Not dreadful stats, but Wildcat defenders again missed several tackle for loss and QB sack opportunities.
— All American receiver Calvin Ridley caught 11 passes for 174 yards and 2 TD’s. Ridley is a future 1st rounder, but Hurts’ unimpaired view greatly assisted in the matter. Ridley, “We just come to practice, and that’s where we get it from. We have to get better and keep working. When that happens, I think we’ll be unstoppable.” I think I agree.
— RB Benny Snell did not see a great deal of action. The true freshman carried the football 8 times and gained 44 yards.
Kentucky showed resolve. It was often beaten during 1-on-1 individual athletic competitions which frequently happens against the nation’s most talented team. There were positives to be gained from the 34-6 loss. But, there are also definite paths for improvement that will be highlighted and corrected from Saturday’s film.
No way around it or easy way to say it; QB Stephen Johnson has to protect the football. What started as a hiccup against NMSU has now evolved into a 3-game trend. Missed tackles also continue to plague; especially those that occur across the line of scrimmage. Zone pass coverage remains a tricky proposition. These shortages can be cleaned up and were severely magnified due to high-level competition. True freshman LT Landon Young was thrown into the proverbial fire. He’ll only get better from the experience. Same can be said about the UK linebackers. The group is young but eager.
What can’t be fixed through repetition and or practice is the lack of front seven depth. Kengera Daniel has missed games due a non-injury situation. Frustratingly Alvonte Bell did not make the trip to Tuscaloosa. Development of existing and game-eligible defensive linemen must continue and do so in rapid fashion. Defensive backs will continue to struggle in coverage until a pass rush becomes consistent and lasting. Covering top-shelf pass catchers like Calvin Ridley and OJ Howard for more than 4 seconds is nearly an impossible task.
Many disagreed on Saturday night, and that’s ok; but Kentucky looked, acted, and played like an improved football team. I frame that in a comparison context to efforts displayed in the 2nd half against Southern Miss and 4 quarters in the Swamp. It didn’t come close to winning the football game against Alabama but certainly exceeded the vast majority of doomsday expectation and prognostication.
Nick Saban, “You’ve got to give Mark Stoops a lot of credit for bringing his team back that way so that they’re playing hard and actually playing a lot better.”
Talent, depth, and experience are what they are. But this team played with passion and didn’t show quit as it has disturbingly done so in the past. That alone has to be considered a positive. A loss to the Crimson Tide is disappointing; but if considered in proper context it can be used as a tool for player growth and team development. Right, wrong, or indifferent we’ll see next Saturday.
The Vanderbilt Commodores travel to Commonwealth Stadium next Saturday as Mark Stoops finds himself in yet another must-win scenario. A victory would move Kentucky to 3-3 and keep bowl aspirations alive. A loss would all but deflate post-season hopes with Missouri, Mississippi State, and Georgia on the horizon.
Mark Stoops, “I’m worried about the next one honestly, that’s what I just told them. We are a late show, and we will get back late tonight. Our players have to do their part to get treatment and get rest. Tomorrow we have to get back to work and have a great Monday.”
The Cats are 2-3.