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Injuries finally pile up for Kentucky as it finishes historic top-20 schedule stretch

Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith was forced into Saturday's 48-7 loss to Alabama because of Jalen Whitlow's first-quarter ankle sprain. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith was forced into Saturday’s 48-7 loss to Alabama because of Jalen Whitlow’s first-quarter ankle sprain. | Photo by James Pennington


After Kentucky’s 41-7 win over Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 7, it left the relative comfort of the win and immediately jumped into the most daunting gauntlet in the program’s history. The Wildcats had never played top-20 teams four games in a row, and they were about to play a top-20 team four games in a row.
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Faced with such a task, a team such as Kentucky—read: rebuilding under a first-year head coach in the SEC—should set reasonable goals. The primary priorities, other than trying to win some games, were: Show improvement on the field, and don’t get hurt.


The Wildcats had mostly dodged the injury bug in the first three games against No. 7 Louisville, No. 19 Florida and No. 13 South Carolina. That was not the case against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.


The most notable injury was to quarterback Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow was just installed last week as the team’s starter after shuffling in and out with Maxwell Smith for the first four games of the season. But on the second series of Kentucky’s 48-7 loss to the Crimson Tide, Whitlow suffered a sprained ankle while being sacked.


X-rays were negative, but Whitlow did not return Saturday, and his timetable to return is unclear, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after the game.


Whitlow’s skill set is unique to Kentucky, and offensive coordinator Neal Brown said much of the Wildcats’ offensive game plan revolved around things Whitlow can do that Smith, who replaced him upon the injury, cannot do.


“We gave (Whitlow) the starter’s reps this week (in practice), and Maxwell didn’t get as many as he had been, and then we had a lot of quarterback run game in the game plan,” Brown said. “So it took us a couple series to get a plan together, because we were going to use the quarterback run game and use some of that as decoy also.”


Whitlow’s injury was the most severe and the most noted, but he wasn’t the only one who went down Saturday. Wide receiver Demarco Robinson left with an injured ankle and did not return. Starting right guard Kevin Mitchell suffered an undisclosed injury and did not return.


On defense, among those who were laid out on the field were Fred Tiller, Nate Willis and Donte Rumph, though each returned to play.


“There’s so many guys, I hate to get into it right now,” Stoops said when asked about his team’s injuries. “But we’re banged up.”


It’s not newsworthy to note that every athlete and every team in every sport wants to stay healthy. But a team like Kentucky has much more to lose when several of its players are banged up than, say, Alabama. The Crimson Tide are deep. Many of the players on the field now were sitting on the bench when Alabama won a championship last year or the year before that.


Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of the Wildcats' 48-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of the Wildcats’ 48-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky is not deep. Many of the players in the starting 22 are newcomers, either freshmen or junior-college guys brought in since Stoops was hired and raised the bar in recruiting. The players behind them on the depth chart—those that would have to step in if a player couldn’t play on account of injury—aren’t ready for prime time for one reason or another.


With regard to Whitlow’s injury, the Wildcats are in an even more precarious situation. Smith is the second-string quarterback, and he plugged right in and played the rest of the game. But what if Smith would have suffered an injury and could not play? He’s injured his shoulder this season, and an ankle injury ended his season last year after four games. The next two quarterbacks on the depth chart are Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips, and Stoops is committed to redshirting both. Neither have played this season, and if either enters a game, his redshirt would be burned and he would immediately lose that would-be saved year of eligibility.


Depth is one reason why the Wildcats’ efforts went for naught over the last four games. Especially against Louisville, a pristine first half was nullified when the first-stringers got tired and there was no option to give them rest. When every single Alabama drive went into the red zone Saturday except for the very first of the game, and when Kentucky’s offense couldn’t get past midfield until the third quarter, the Wildcats’ defense had nothing left in the tank.


“We can play with them, we’ve just got to keep up the intensity,” said freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher, who played Saturday with a right hand broken in two places. “As the game progressed, the wear and tear just wore on us.”


The 41-point loss to Alabama marked the end of the historic schedule stretch for UK, and it also neatly served as the halfway mark for Stoops’ first season at UK. The Cats are 1-5, and they have an open week before hitting the road to take on Mississippi State on Oct. 24. With all that’s happened over the past month, that open week was timed perfectly, Brown said.


“The truth of the matter is, we’ve played four top-15 teams in a row, three of the top defenses in the country,” he said. “I think you pull the positives, which I don’t know if there are any tonight, really, other than that one drive. I guess we’re the only team in like three games to score a touchdown (against Alabama). Four games? Put that on the front page.


“So that’s a positive, but I think you use this: We’ve got half the season left, so I think you look at it and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we did. Here’s where we’re at. Our record’s obviously not where we want, but here’s where we’re at and this is the positives we’ve done, and here’s where we need improvement.’ ”

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