In what is easily the toughest game of the season for our young Kentucky Wildcats, the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide are rolling in to Commonwealth Stadium this evening. It’s a match up of the 2-time defending National Champion vs. a team trying for their second win on the season; veteran head coach Nick Saban vs. newbie Mark Stoops. But look, this game doesn’t have to be a disaster for the Wildcats. Jalen Whitlow got into a rhythm last week in the 4th against South Carolina and our defense has been stout all year. What we don’t seem to have worked out yet, on either side of the ball is the deep ball and stopping the run. I don’t know if D.J. Eliot and Neal Brown found the solution in practice this week but if they did, we could have a ball game. Here are some Keys to the Game from Lexington Herald-Leader writer, Mark Story.
In losses to ranked foes Louisville, Florida and South Carolina, Kentucky has managed to “stay in games.” Outgained 492-376 by U of L, UK lost “only” 27-13. Massively outgained by Florida (402-173), it was 24-7 on the scoreboard. At South Carolina, the Gamecocks won the yardage decisively (453-301) and the game narrowly (35-28). Top-ranked Alabama will put UK’s ability to stay in games with more talented foes to the ultimate test.
Keep the rhythm going
For the first time this season against any foe not named Miami (Ohio), Kentucky sustained a positive offensive flow during the second half at South Carolina, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter. Jalen Whitlow responded well to his first full game of action at quarterback in 2013. Against an Alabama defense that rivals Florida’s for best in the SEC, can Whitlow and UK’s youthful offensive playmakers sustain that momentum?
Since 2008, Alabama is 44-0 when it wins the turnover battle, 23-7 when it either ties or loses in TO margin. That makes it pretty clear what UK has to do. Kentucky is nowhere close to good enough to stay in the game with the Crimson Tide if the Wildcats fail to take care of the ball.
Alabama has the far superior team individually and collectively but much of that has to do with having a coach there for the past several years who knows how to recruit players he can use. We didn’t have that for years but we do now. Mark Stoops is that guy. Check out how the positions match up and who wins each battle.
With no more quarterback rotation at South Carolina, UK sophomore Jalen Whitlow completed 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two TDs. The Prattville, Ala., product also ran for 69 yards. In his third year as the Alabama starter, AJ McCarron has as many BCS championship rings (two) as he has losses as Alabama’s first-string QB (30-2). The Mobile, Ala., product is the school record holder with 59 career TD passes.
True freshman Jojo Kemp got 12 rushes against South Carolina for 40 yards and is averaging 6.8 yards a carry. Senior Raymond Sanders scored a TD last week from the Wildcat formation. Alabama sophomore T.J. Yeldon is sixth in the SEC in rushing at 89 yards per game (445 yards total, 6.2 a carry). His backup, Kenyan Drake, is averaging more a carry (7.1) than Yeldon.
Of Kentucky’s top six in receptions, four are newcomers. True freshman Ryan Timmons caught his first college TD pass at South Carolina. With 19 catches, the ex-Franklin County star is second to juco transfer Javess Blue (22) in receptions. Junior Christion Jones leads a deep, balanced stable of Alabama wideouts with 20 catches. Sophomore Amari Cooper, who starred a year ago (59 catches for 1,000 yards with 11 TDs as true frosh) has been plagued by a sore toe and has nine receptions for 100 yards in four games so far.
Kentucky senior Jordan Aumiller caught three passes (for 34 yards) at South Carolina, the first time he’d had that many receptions in a game since Georgia in 2010. Alabama tight ends O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler each have seven catches this season.
Tackles Jordan Swindle and Darrian Miller and guard Kevin Mitchell has started all five games for Kentucky. Spared from having to face Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, UK surrendered only four tackles for loss in Columbia. Alabama junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is being touted as a potential top-five NFL Draft pick. His older brother, Arie Kouandjio, could get the start at left guard.
Kentucky standout end Alvin “Bud” Dupree might not play after suffering a strained pectoral muscle at South Carolina. Pressed into action last week after Dupree’s injury, UK true freshman Jason Hatcher broke his hand in two places but “played through it” while recording three tackles and his first career sack. Alabama senior defensive end Ed Stinson is fourth on the Crimson Tide with 19 tackles and also has half a sack and a QB hurry.
Kentucky senior MLB Avery Williamson had nine tackles at South Carolina, but has slipped to second in the SEC with 51 stops, one behind Georgia’s Ramik Wilson. Alabama WLB C.J. Mosley leads the Tide with 42 stops and 31/2 TFL. Hybrid linebacker/rush end Denzel Devall has two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Kentucky DBs are still looking for their first interceptions this season (UK’s lone pick so far came from linebacker Josh Forrest). True freshman nickel back Blake McClain recorded a QB sack at South Carolina. Alabama strong safety Vinnie Sunseri has two interceptions, including one against Texas A&M he returned 73 yards for a touchdown. Senior Deion Belue is Bama’s top CB.
Kentucky kicker Joe Mansour is 6-for-6 on field goal tries, but he has not tried from outside 37 yards. Punter Landon Foster has struggled (40.5 per punt) with only one kick downed inside the opponent’s 20. Alabama’s special teams are top rate. Kicker Cade Foster is 5-for-6 on field goals with a long of 53 yards. Punter Cody Mandell is averaging 46.7 yards. The Tide leads the SEC in kickoff coverage (44.1 yards net average) and is second in punt returns (14.0).
AMARI COOPERPosition: Wide receiverHeight: 6-1 Weight: 202 Class: SophomoreKey stat: Cooper has been limited to three catches for 28 yards in Alabama’s past two games.Buzz: Cooper hasn’t built on his monster freshman season with just nine catches for 100 yards to date. His numbers are down and QB AJ McCarron said he hasn’t seen defenses focus more attention on Cooper, leaving many to wonder how much a lingering toe injury is bothering him.Kentucky’s fast pace should mean plenty of possessions for Alabama, and perhaps this is where Cooper can break out of his slump.
Height: 5-11 Weight: 185 Class: Junior
Key stat: Jones ranks No. 8 in the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 121 all-purpose yards per game.
Buzz: On special teams, Jones was off to a red-hot start with two return touchdowns in the season opener.
Now, five games in and Jones has become the receiving leader as well, hauling in a team-high 20 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Jones has reeled in 17 passes in his past three games.
Height: 6-0 Weight: 210 Class: Sophomore
Key stat:Collins has learned to play five different positions in Alabama’s defensive backfield.
Buzz: Already a versatile defensive back with most of his experience coming at strong safety, Collins got his first taste of free safety stepping in for the suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix last week. We’ll see how quick of a study Collins is on the road against an SEC team that likes to pick up the pace on offense. If he falters, expect Geno Smith to get a chance to slide in at free safety.
Height: 6-1 Weight: 238 Class: Senior
Key stat: Williamson has a track record for tackles; he finished second in the SEC with 135 stops in 2012.
Buzz: Williamson is the heart and soul of UK’s improved defense. He leads the Wildcats in games played (42) and has been a tackling machine, racking up 51 tackles through five games this season, which ranks third in the SEC. He was a preseason third-team All-SEC pick.
Position: Defensive end
Height: 6-4 Weight: 254 Class: Junior
Key stat: Smith was rated as the No. 3 junior college defensive end in the nation according to Rivals.com
Buzz: Smith was considered one of the elitejunior college prospect in the Class of 2013 and we’re starting to see why. Smith has 22 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season. The sack total ranks third in the SEC and 15th nationally. He’ll be charged with pressuing Alabama QB AJ McCarron. McCarron was sacked four times in the season opener vs. VT but has only been brought down three times in the four games since.
Height: 6-2 Weight: 220 Class: Sophomore
Key stat:Whitlow was a catalyst for UK last week, going 17 for 24 for 179 yards passing along with 69 yards rushing on 17 carries.
Buzz: Until last week, Kentucky had employed a two-QB system for its fast-paced Air Raid offense this season.
But it was Whitlow, a Prattville native, who emerged as the Wildcats’ dual threat. He helped Kentucky hang around at South Carolina last week, a performance may mean that Whitlow is again lone man under center for UK on Saturday.