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Gleaning positives from Kentucky's 48-7 loss to Alabama isn't easy, but lessons are there

Kentucky cornerback Nate Willis celebrated after the Wildcats recovered a fumble in the first quarter Saturday against Alabama. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky cornerback Nate Willis celebrated after the Wildcats recovered a fumble in the first quarter Saturday against Alabama. | Photo by James Pennington


In the week leading up to Kentucky’s 48-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama, the tone was clear that the black-and-white result of that game wasn’t going to determine how the coaching staff graded the game. Yes, a win against Alabama sure would have been something great, but it was never expected that the Crimson Tide Destruction Machine was going to march in to Commonwealth Stadium and suddenly short out.
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Instead, Mark Stoops and his coaching staff simply wanted progress. They wanted things to pull from that, even if inconsistent, could further prove to the Cats they can hang around against the SEC’s best, much like they showed at times against Florida and South Carolina. As it turned out, not many of those moments came to pass against the Tide.


Looking at the big picture, it’s easy to select four points in Saturday’s game in which something Kentucky did directly netted a positive result:


  1. Forcing an Alabama punt on its first drive of the game (it was Alabama’s only punt of the game);
  2. Forcing an Alabama fumble inside the UK 20-yard line on its second drive of the game;
  3. Forcing an Alabama fumble inside the UK 5-yard line on its third drive of the game; and
  4. Scoring a touchdown in the third quarter.


The first drive, on which Alabama punted, was important because it was the only series in the entire game in which the Tide did not enter the red zone. The Tide advanced the ball to the 50-yard line, and then UK’s defense made its only stand of the day. Cornerback Fred Tiller made a diving pass break-up on first down. Free safety Eric Dixon rushed in and stopped running back T.J. Yeldon on second down and held him to three yards. Then on 3rd and 7, wide-open Alabama receiver Kenny Bell dropped a pass over the middle that would have made the first down.


The two turnover plays were important, obviously, but each was on the desperate end of a long drive as the Alabama offense approached the end zone. As thus, Stoops was hesitant to put full stock in their worth. Still, Dixon’s strip of Kenyan Drake and Tiller’s strip of Yeldon were important plays necessary to keeping the Wildcats’ heads up as long as they did.


“They drove it down there, and we’d get the turnover, and they kept us back there, playing great defense,” Stoops said. “Even though we got a couple of turnovers, we were still behind the eight ball most of the night and chasing it. It was an uphill climb.”


Perhaps Kentucky will learn most from its touchdown drive. Even if it was only one scoring drive of the game, it was no small feat: Other than giving up six touchdowns to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide had only surrendered one total touchdown in its four other games before Saturday.


Stoops kept using the world “multiple” to describe Alabama’s offense, and he used it to describe South Carolina, too. By “multiple,” he meant both offenses were balanced. If a defense were to load the tackle box to stop the run, an easy pass over the top could torch them. And a defense drooping back in pass coverage could get gashed on account of a quick draw play.


So then, it makes sense that Kentucky’s one drive, a nine-play, 75-yard series, emulated that balance.


PLAY 1: 1ST AND 10

Handoff to Raymond Sanders, eight yards



Handoff to Sanders, four yards


PLAY 3: 1ST AND 10

Maxwell Smith pass complete to Javess Blue over the middle, 13 yards


PLAY 4: 1ST AND 10

Play-action pass, Smith sacked, loss of seven yards. Personal foul against Alabama after the play, 15 yards


PLAY 5: 1ST AND 10

Handoff to Sanders, four yards



Handoff to Sanders, three yards



Direct snap to Jojo Kemp, one yard



Handoff to Sanders, three yards


PLAY 9: 1ST AND 10

Smith pass complete to Blue over the middle, 30 yards, touchdown


One way to look at the way the series was pieced together is by type of play:


Five plays: handoff

Two plays: drop back to pass

One play: play-action pass

One play: direct snap to running back


The trick is taking that one drive, those nine plays, for what it and they are worth: It was one drive. It was nine plays. And it was within the context of a 41-point loss. Still, the only person to have thrown a touchdown pass against that defense this season so far was Manziel. It’s worth something.


Much like the rest of this season has been, and much like the rest of this transitionary season will be, the lessons may be buried in undesirable locales, but they’re there.


“I think we’re making progress, but I don’t think anybody cares, you know what I mean? The record is what it is,” Stoops said after the game Saturday. “I like this group. We were uphill against a great team all night tonight. I’m a little bit frustrated. I’ll wait and get back to work tomorrow and get these guys in position to compete and fight and get better the rest of the way through. I think we have been doing that. Frustrating night tonight. But again, give (Alabama) credit. They can do that to a lot of people.”

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