Patrick Towles is hit as he throws is first career touchdown pass. (Photo by Jon Hale)
The list of the UK football team’s walking — or at least limping — wounded grew Saturday as the Wildcats struggled to move the ball on offense and the defense was unable to get off the field on third down in a 27-14 loss to No. 20 Mississippi Sate.
This week the Wildcats learned their week-one starting quarterback Maxwell Smith, week-one starting tailback CoShik Williams and backup safety Dakotah Tyler were out for the season with injuries.
By the second half Saturday, those players were joined by freshman quarterback Patrick Towles and starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Ashely Lowery on the inactive list.
“Injuries continue to mount, and we continue to get younger and younger,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips. “We have now played 14 true freshmen. At one time it was four or five true freshmen competing with our defense and numerous (freshmen) on special teams.”
“It’s not an excuse,” he added. “It’s just facts, and we’ve got to get these guys better.”
Phillips started the game with the plan to rotate freshmen quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Towles. After Whitlow led UK to consecutive three-and-out drives and Mississippi State scored touchdowns on two of its first three drives, the Wildcats turned to Towles for the first time this season.
He led the Wildcats on a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive. On the drive, Towles completed all five of his pass attempts for 71 yards, including a 22-yard pass to senior wide receiver La’Rod King while being hit for his first career touchdown.
After a three-and-out of his own and a Mississippi State field goal, Towles got the ball back for his third drive. On the first play of the drive, Towles was sacked for a loss of 12 yards. He stayed on the field for two more plays, but in the locker room at halftime trainers ruled he had sprained his ankle and could not return.
He spent the second half on the sideline on crutches and with a boot on his injured right ankle.
“You’re not going to break tackles with the guy has both arms wrapped around you,” Phillips said. “Just go down. That’s how competitive he is. That was my advice to him: this year he’s not going to break that tackle, go down.”
“I should have gotten rid of the ball, and I didn’t,” Towles said. “It was obviously my fault that I’m sitting here in a boot.”
Without Towles in the second half, the UK offense struggled mightily.
Mississippi State scored on its first drive of the half to take a 24-7 lead. The Wildcats only score for the remainder of the game came on a 46-yard drive in the third quarter.
With the game still within reach, the UK offense gained no more than 30 yards on any of its final four drives.
Whitlow completed 10 of 21 pass attempts for 73 yards and netted 26 yards and one touchdown on eight carries.
After the game, coaches said the play of both freshmen quarterbacks left plenty of room for improvement.
“Honestly, not quite as well as I expected them to (play),” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “I thought Patrick came in, made a couple throws, did a couple good things. I told him all week if he didn’t make good decisions, get the ball out of his hands, he might get his leg broke. He got caught holding onto the ball one time, didn’t have his eyes in the right place.”
Asked specifically about Whitlow’s play, Sanders tried to be diplomatic.
“I’m going to answer this nicely: it wasn’t close to what I expected or what we need,” he said.
“Just couldn’t really throw the ball in the ocean today,” Whitlow said. “That’s not good.”
While the UK defense surrendered just seven points in the second half, it dug a hole for the team early.
Mississippi State finished the game with 427 total yards and converted 10 of 18 third downs. The Bulldogs converted seven of 12 third-and-fives or longer.
“Until we get better on third down, our results won’t be a whole lot better,” said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter.
UK lost Neloms to a sprained hamstring and Lowery to concussion like symptoms in the first half. In their place the Wildcats relied heavily on freshmen safeties Daron and Zack Blaylock. Zack was playing for the first time this season.
“The younger you are, the more mistakes you have to unfortunately live with,” Minter said. “The older they are, the more disappointed you are that they would continue to make the same error.”
Coaches acknowledged they were frustrated by being unable to put the team they anticipated having on the field due to injuries, but to a man they voiced hope that things could still get better.
“It’s still out there,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to get the guys that are available ready to compete and continue to work to have that same type of offense that we though we could have.”