Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 SEC) at Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4)
When: 12:21 p.m.
Where: Nashville’s Vanderbilt Stadium
TV: SEC Network (WKYT-Channel 27 in Lexington)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, XM Channel 200, Sirius Channel 139
Series: Kentucky leads 41-40-4
Last meeting: Vanderbilt won 40-0 in Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 3, 2012.
Line: Vanderbilt is favored by 121/2.
In spite of the piling on of losses this season, one thing has emerged true among all pundits of the game; Jalen Whitlow gives us the best chance to win as the starting QB. So in what is typically a match-up of the traditionally worst teams of the East, Vanderbilt is one win away from qualifying for yet another bowl while Kentucky hasn’t sniffed a bowl in quite a while. While there is plenty of blame to go around, Jalen Whitlow is by far out best QB option and is who would lead the upset today against Vandy.
Being the strong, silent type has been enough for Jalen Whitlow.
Well, up until now.
The Kentucky quarterback goes out on the field, grabs the ball, tucks it and runs.
That used to be enough. But now his teammates and coaches are asking the sophomore to be much more.
“We need him to be more vocal as a quarterback and as a leader, no matter his age,” senior running back Raymond Sanders said.
A guy on the other side of the ball sees it, too.
“Jalen’s good at leading by example, but I just think he needs to talk more as a quarterback,” junior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree said. “He’s just not a vocal guy.”
The quarterback, who will try to lead Kentucky to its first Southeastern Conference victory in 14 tries at Vanderbilt on Saturday, wants to be more vocal.
He’s tried. But it’s so much easier to get the crowd to make noise with a dramatic run than to get into the face of a teammate or grab a jersey and demand a better block or a more precise route.
“I’m not a big talkative guy, I guess, but I’m getting more talkative,” he said quietly to reporters this week. “I’m getting better.”
And once he does, watch out, teammates said.
“I know Jalen a little bit outside of football, so I know he’s got it in him and once it comes out, he’s going to be a very special player,” Dupree said of Whitlow, who had a career-high-tying 225 yards passing and a rushing touchdown versus Missouri a week ago.
Figuring out what a defense is doing will solve one of Whitlow’s other issues as well. Coach Mark Stoops said he’d like to see the sophomore from Prattville, Ala., continue to grow into a better decision-maker.
“He’s got to make the right decisions with the football with what plays to get into,” Stoops said. “That is a big part of it. I think we’re improving in that area, and then to hit some open receivers at times we’re just a little bit inconsistent in our execution of the pass game.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Neal Brown has seen Whitlow’s decision-making — and his leadership — get considerably better since the season-opening loss to Western Kentucky.
Whitlow is figuring things out. UK used to call nearly every play from the sideline, but Brown said defenses were catching onto that. Now, Whitlow has a couple of options when he gets to the line of scrimmage, and the quarterback has to make the best decision based on what he sees.
“And those things, Jalen’s much improved, but he can still get better,” Brown said. “What it does is it gives you easy yards. So if the numbers are in the box, he can throw it outside and we can get easier yards than trying to block all those people inside.”
Make a muscle
In outscoring Kentucky a combined 78-8 in two blowout victories in the past two seasons, Vanderbilt has shoved the Cats around at the line of scrimmage. Last year, the Commodores outrushed UK 227-101. Two years ago in Nashville, it was 203-32. To send a message that things will be different in 2013, the Wildcats need to bring the lumber and bring it early Saturday.
Protect the football
The Wildcats need to be especially stingy with the giveaways against a Vanderbilt defense that forced four turnovers last Saturday against Florida and turned three interceptions into 21 points to ignite the Commodores’ first victory in Gainesville since 1945. Kentucky has been good about ball security lately. Raymond Sanders’ lost fumble last week against Missouri is UK’s only turnover in its past five games.
Pressure a young QB
Before senior Austyn Carta-Samuels (three 300-plus yard passing games this season) was sidelined by a leg injury, Vanderbilt’s offense was pass happy. With redshirt freshman Patton Robinette (6-for-12 passing for 57 yards at Florida) starting the past two games, Vandy has moved to more of a ground-heavy emphasis. If Robinette, a Maryville, Tenn., product, is again the Vanderbilt starter, it would behoove UK to try to force him out of “game manager” role and make him try to win the game with his arm.
Seems headed toward indifference. A much-anticipated UK men’s basketball season is underway and it has taken a lot of oxygen out of the football interest. For UK football to succeed long-term, Vanderbilt is a team the Wildcats must consistently beat. An upset against a Vandy program on the ascendancy under James Franklin would be significant for Mark Stoops.
And what are the Keys to the Game without the players to be those keys? Of course they Keys are nothing without the players and players are nothing without attitude to match their skills and this group has plenty of motivation after getting popped the past couple seasons.
In the past two seasons, Kentucky has lost to Vanderbilt by a combined score of 78-8.
When the numbers are discussed, UK players visibly wince.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In those two wins over the Cats, Vanderbilt has outgained UK 857-471, including almost 300 more yards on the ground.
The 40-0 loss at Commonwealth Stadium last season was especially painful and UK’s worst against the Commodores since 1916.
Some UK players say they’re trying to forget the past and move forward.
Others seem to have different plans.
“Forget about forgetting them,” fullback Cody Jones said Wednesday. “We need to use them as revenge. They’ve blown us out the past couple of times. This is a great opportunity to get fans back and look forward to what’s going to happen next year.”
Fellow senior Raymond Sanders tried the company line of moving forward, but he couldn’t help but talk about getting some revenge, too.
“You let them go,” he said of the past two games, “but you have to realize that those guys have beaten us bad the past two years and that has to motivate you and cause you to burn inside. … Use motivation and just go out and play hard and fight.”
It means a little bit more to Avery Williamson, the senior linebacker from Milan, Tenn. He’ll have loads of family in the Vandy stands on Saturday.
Williamson doesn’t care about UK’s 2-7 record and winless mark in the Southeastern Conference.
He doesn’t care that Vanderbilt is coming off a historic win at Florida — the first Commodores win there since 1945 — or that UK’s opponent is one win shy of earning its third straight bowl trip.
“We’re definitely playing with that chip on our shoulder because of what they did to us last year. … Things didn’t go our way,” Williamson said.
But what gives Kentucky players confidence, especially when the numbers the past two seasons have been so dramatically against UK?
“This is a brand new team with a whole new coaching staff,,” senior Donte Rumph said. “It’s a different year. It’s our turn to win now, so that’s our motivation to win this week.”
For an interesting preview of this afternoon’s matchup, what better source to get the opposite perspective than from Vandy’s own, head coach James Franklin.
Since Vanderbilt is coming off their first win at Florida since 1945, their confidence will be soaring so this could be a trap game. And if it is, so what? A win is still a win and a road win is even sweeter. For a quick preview, check out how they match up statistically on Offense and Defense.