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Kentucky wrap-up: A typical UA-UK game in an atypical year

At some point, Kentucky is going to have to decide what it wants to be in football.

Does it want to contend in an SEC East that, in most years, will flow through Georgia and Florida because of the inherent recruiting advantages there? Or is it content to be a mid-level opponent, good enough to beat bad teams but never good enough to advance into the upper threshold of the division?

The assumption, if Kentucky picks the second option, is that it will be good enough to both put modest scares into the hearts of the division leaders, while at the same time avoid embarrassing beatdowns. But on Saturday against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Kentucky couldn’t even pull that off.

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Yes, it hurt the Wildcats that 10 players were absent due to Covid-19, but of those 10, only two or three were considered either key losses, or players without capable backups. Their loss was only supposed to threaten Kentucky’s chance for an upset of Bama; instead, it reduced Kentucky from the ranks of scrappy also-rans, turning the Wildcats into backyard strays.

The fact Mark Stoops is going to end his Kentucky career, eventually, as the winningest coach in school history is in itself a condemnation of the state of the program. Rare is it that any public school with a decent budget in a Power 5 conference ends up being noncompetitive for so long, but Kentucky has somehow found a way.

Offensively, what Kentucky wants to do simply doesn’t work anymore. If the Wildcats are determined to play spread-option, zone-read football without a lot of talent at quarterback or receiver, they’re going to have to go fast. If they want to huddle up before every play and be methodical, they’re going to need better players. Stoops has had scattered episodes of recruiting success, but somehow went into this season with only one quality wide receiver – and Eddie Gran’s dated offensive playbook wasn’t enough to create mismatches that could have made marginal players look better.

Wildcat QB Terry Wilson entered the game with 68 carries for 334 yards, a 4.9-yard average – an outstanding number for a college quarterback, given the NCAA subtracts sack yardage from rushing totals. That’s an average of nearly 10 rushes per game.

Against Alabama? 5 carries, 5 yards, most of them into the teeth of the middle of Alabama’s defense. Gran and Stoops simply didn’t use the weapon they had.

Once Stoops had seen enough of Wilson (or, more likely, once he figured this game was hopeless and decided to save Wilson for future contests), in came Joey Gatewood and then Beau Allen. Gatewood has been out of high school for three years now, but didn’t appear to have been developed for a single day. Allen, heralded by Kentucky insiders as a pass-first surgeon at the quarterback position, mentally locked up – as well as displayed arm strength that, to be kind, could be described as “gentle.”

Alabama didn’t even look like it worked much on this game, and the sleepy tone the game took in the first half sort of backed up that impression. But did it really need to? If this is what Kentucky fans have come to expect from their Wildcats – and are OK with it – the questions that arise about Kentucky’s role in SEC football going forward take on a grave quality. Yes, Alabama did a lot of good things in this game; 63 points is hard to ignore, although Alabama wasn’t statistically dominant on offense until late in the second half. But it also wasn’t like the Crimson Tide needed maximum effort to get the job done.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Kentucky:

1. Defensive gameplan seemed to almost develop on the fly. ESPN’s Jordan Rodgers reported on a conversation he had with Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding earlier in the week, saying Golding had relayed that Alabama’s gameplan on defense was going to be mostly to watch what Kentucky did in the first quarter, adjust to it and go from there. Nick Saban even admitted Alabama had done a lot of work during the downtime on future opponents. By midway through the first quarter, no one would have had trouble believing that Alabama had spent two weeks working on Auburn, Florida and LSU. Alabama allowed too much between the tackles, and Terry Wilson did most of his damage in the game’s first seven minutes. But Bama toughened up in the red zone, resulting in one Kentucky field goal and two special teams snafus. Then the second quarter started and whatever chance Kentucky thought it had went out the window faster than a Churchill Downs thoroughbred. It’s clear Alabama spent the last couple of weeks doing a lot of work on Teams Not Named Kentucky, and given the results in this game, that appears to have been the correct call.

2. Special teams work was a big factor, and a welcome change for Bama. Charlie Scott had another good outing as Alabama’s punter, and seems to have solidified that position for the remainder of the year. Will Reichard wasn’t asked to do much other than kick off and kick PATs, but did what was asked of him, and he’s already proven his potential value on long field goal tries. Slade Bolden had put up a couple of good punt returns before he injured an ankle late in the game, and DeVonta Smith showed some real potential value as a punt returner, but Alabama’s lack of depth at receiver calls into question whether Smith needs to be exposed to contact in that role. As for Kentucky’s missed field goals, the bad snap on Kentucky’s second try was just a fluke, but on the missed third attempt, Alabama got a strong rush off the left corner, which combined with another iffy snap, forced a kick that leaked out to the right. Alabama wasn’t expected to hold the edge in special teams this week, but ended up turning this category into a mismatch.

3. The first-half gameplan went through Mac Jones; he answered the call even if this wasn’t his best game. Jones’ interception in the second half came on a ball he never should have thrown in the first place. Other than that, he had his typical, high-efficiency outing highlighted by a couple of hero throws that left onlookers gaping. Chief among those was the touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith that ultimately broke the career SEC touchdown receiving record. Jones bought himself just enough time with solid footwork before throwing a lethal, not to mention unbelievable dart to Smith as he crossed the back of the end zone. Jones also did a good job of working TE Jahleel Billingsley into the game, as Miller Forristall was a late scratch. Other than the late interception, Jones had a solid game, and carried the offense for awhile until Bama got the running game going. It wasn’t his best statistical day, but it was more than good enough to put this game on ice.

4. Another near-shutout, with better play from Alabama’s defense, especially Christian Harris. Curiously, Dylan Moses finished the day with zero tackles (he had one wiped out by penalty), but Christian Harris was all over the field. Alabama got strong safety play from Jordan Battle and Malachi Moore, and the defensive line – once the second-quarter adjustment package came in – got exceptionally stingy against the Kentucky running game. Alabama’s QB pressures were decent if not overwhelming, but Harris was a demon in the middle for Alabama, helping to supplement both the run defense and be an impediment to the Wildcats’ option-based passing attack, especially on shorter routes. Alabama has now gone two complete games without allowing a touchdown, something no Alabama fan would have thought possible after the Ole Miss fiasco.

5. Offensive line played a solid game, but Forristall’s loss was felt in the running game. It took awhile for Najee Harris to get going, as Kentucky spent most of the first quarter selling out to stop Alabama’s running game at all costs. It’s a gameplan Alabama will certainly see down the stretch, especially if John Metchie continues to have days like today, when he posted a drop plus failed to do much to get open on isolation routes. The offensive line had a couple of busts inside early on, but once Alabama adjusted to Kentucky’s run fits, those plays went away. The biggest item of note in this game was probably Miller Forristall’s absence at tight end, who Alabama decided to replace almost exclusively with Jahleel Billingsley. Billingsley is a fine receiver – he split wide on several of Alabama’s 4-wide looks – but his blocking as an inline tight end needs work due largely to his slim body type. For whatever reason, Alabama didn’t use Kendall Randolph quite as often as it had in earlier games, but eventually moved to several two-TE looks with Randolph and Carl Tucker later in the game. Kentucky had shown an ability to make a few big plays each game behind the line of scrimmage, and continued that work against Alabama, but Alabama eventually got control of the game, then wore out the thin UK defense late. Alabama’s last two scoring drives featured zero passes, and despite Alabama playing a mixture of second- and third-team offensive linemen on those drives, thoroughly controlled the Wildcats.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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