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Thursday, November 7, 2013

With Jalen Whitlow relatively healthy, UK’s passing game faces new challenges Saturday

Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown has a handful of factors working against him in preparing for Saturday's game against No. 8 Missouri. (Photo by Jon Hale)

Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown has a handful of factors working against him in preparing for Saturday’s game against No. 8 Missouri. (Photo by Jon Hale)

 

As expected given all of the circumstances around this season, Kentucky’s newfangled Air Raid offense hasn’t quite been as explosive as the first edition under Hal Mumme with Tim Couch throwing passes. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops didn’t inherit a passer of Couch’s caliber or the talent at receiver, and even then Stoops has been forced to shuffle around quarterbacks and receivers because of injury and poor performance throughout the season. UK’s 24 points per game ranks 12th in the SEC, and its 16 points per game in four conference games is 13th.

 

A confluence of three factors has shone a spotlight on the Wildcats’ passing game as it prepares for No. 8 Missouri on Saturday: Jalen Whitlow’s performance Saturday against Alabama State in his first full game back from an ankle injury; the state of Whitlow’s receivers as a pair of costly injuries Saturday shook up the depth chart; and Kentucky’s four-game running streak without a turnover against a Missouri secondary which is tied for second in the nation with 17 interceptions through eight games.

 

First, on Whitlow: After reviewing film from Saturday’s 48-14 win over Alabama State, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said he was mostly pleased with how Whitlow performed in the passing game. The flashiest play of the day was the second from scrimmage, when Whitlow scrambled and scored an 88-yard rushing touchdown. But he was mostly effective in the air, passing for 186 yards and two scores on 16-of-26 passing.

 

He hit a few big plays, including a 38-yard touchdown down the sideline to tight end Steven Borden. Issues crept in, though, Brown said. Brown attributed the problem to seeing wide-open plays and rushing things, overlooking sound technique with wide eyes.

 

“I think he rushes, and his base gets real narrow,” Brown said. “That’s—in my opinion, that’s what causes it. The one on the wheel route up the sideline the other day, he just got real anxious and rushed the throw because the guy was so open. He knew he was going to get the touchdown. And then on some of those other—like on the one to Timmons where he got hurt, the one to the back out of the flat, he just gets his base real narrow.”

 

Whitlow likely won’t have two major targets to face the Tigers. Alexander Montgomery will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee Saturday celebrating a touchdown. Ryan Timmons hasn’t been definitely declared out Saturday, but Stoops said Wednesday it would take a “drastic improvement” for Timmons to play against Missouri after spraining an ankle Saturday. Montgomery and Timmons have combined for 27.6 percent of UK’s receiving yards this season.

 

Without those two, Stoops and Brown have indicated that, among others, sophomore A.J. Legree will likely see more game time and more targets. Legree has four receptions this season for 36 yards. As a freshman, he had 12 receptions for 113 yards. He has not scored a touchdown yet at Kentucky. Demarco Robinson, who has been banged up all season and has not produced accordingly, is also expected to be a bigger part of the plan Saturday now that he’s finally healthy, Brown said.

 

Stoops also said he’ll look more to Kentucky’s tight ends for production. As a unit, tight ends have 18 receptions for 253 yards and one touchdown (Borden’s against Alabama State).

 

Missouri has so many interceptions for a handful of reasons, Stoops said. The Tigers’ front four disrupts quarterbacks plenty, which puts quarterbacks behind. Brown said it’s likely the fastest defensive line he’s faced all season, and he couldn’t think of No. 2.

 

The disruption Missouri’s front four causes—which Brown said goes two or even three deep into the depth chart—causes offensive haste, Stoops said. Passes get rushed, and decision-making isn’t at its best.

 

“And they score a boatload of points. So when (they’re) scoring a boatload of points and you’re playing from behind, you’ve got to take more risks and throw the ball up, and (they) get more opportunities.”

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