From the Sidelines - Wildcats Hauled Back Tough Lessons from ‘Bama

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The charter flight returning the football Wildcats from Tuscaloosa to Lexington landed Saturday night at 10 o’clock. They had traveled 916 miles (round trip) to learn what seemed to be very little about their team.

As the rest of the nation saw firsthand, UK has a physical defense, fast and strong, and an offense that very little resembles the scoring machine that won back-to-back bowl games. But Alabama 17, Kentucky 14 deserves a closer look.

As they got off the plane (de-planed? dis-planed? dat-planed?), the Kentucky players could only think about opportunities wasted. Had the “what ifs?” they brought back weighed as much physically as they did emotionally, the jumbo jet never would have made it off the runway.

What if…

- Mike Hartline hadn’t fumbled his way to an easy Crimson Tide touchdown?
- Matt Roark had been able to come down with Hartline’s pinpoint sideline pass late in the first quarter, the type of catch that could jump-start an offense?
- On fourth down during a third-quarter drive, Hartline had been able to scramble for a first down at the Alabama 29?
- A few minutes later, Trevard Lindley could have hauled in an interception of John Park Wilson?
- During the middle of a 15-play, fourth quarter Bama drive, the Cats had been able to stop Glen Coffee on fourth-and-one from their own 45-yard-line? And…
- Two plays later, David Jones had been able to smother a Alabama fumble at the UK 2-yard-line, thereby avoiding the game-clinching field goal?

Of course, Tide players can say similar things, beginning with a pair of missed field goals that would have give them much more breathing room against a determined UK defense. But it was Alabama that was attempting to live up to a number two national ranking. It was Bama looking to show it was, indeed, as good as it looked the week prior in the beat-down of Georgia in Athens.

The Kentucky players had arrived confident they could roll back the Tide. Defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who normally spends game week encouraging his players to aspire to greatness, instead had asked them to dial it down a notch. “Don’t let one game define you,” was his message.

We’ll find out in five days if they did, but to hear Jeremy Jarmon tell it, the Wildcats can’t wait to get back to work.

“I know we’re going to be anxious again this week, especially coming off a loss,” he said, “probably a little more physical. Guys are angry that we lost.”

This, from a player whose team was a 16-point underdog in Tuscaloosa. Saturday afternoon, they’ll be back home, where they’ve lost just once since the end of the 2005 season.

“I know that we’re going to have the fans behind us this weekend,” Jarmon said. “I expect a lot of excitement in Commonwealth. It’s just crucial that we have a very good week of practice.

“I’m anxious to get back out there on the practice field and especially Saturday. The last couple of nights, I haven’t been getting too much sleep, waking up, thinking about some of the mistakes we made in the Alabama game.”

Mistakes, close losses, staying close - that used to be a way of life with Kentucky football. Not any more. Not with these guys.

“It’s something that I’m not used to, and something the guys on the team aren’t used to,” Jarmon said. “We all come from winning high school programs. We hate to lose. There’s no such thing as a ‘moral victory,’ no matter who it is. We hate to lose.”

Of course, the Man with the Visor is coming to town. His teams, be they from Gainesville or Columbia, have beaten the Wildcats 15 straight times. South Carolina alone has whipped the Wildcats eight in a row. And now the Gamecocks come rolling into Lexington with the SEC’s top defense and an offense that finally found itself in USC’s win over upstart Mississippi.

Last year, the Wildcats handed a touchdown to the Gamecocks and then did it again, providing them with the margin of victory Carolina would need to unseat Kentucky from the number eight spot in the polls and the ranks of the nation’s undefeated.

On Saturday afternoon, the Cats will try to prove they can finally knock off The Visor with a different kind of ballclub, one that showed this past weekend it can play defense against one of the best teams in the country. Trouble is, so can the Gamecocks, and Kentucky will try to attack SC with an offensive line riddled with injuries.

But if the Wildcats can successfully defend their home turf again, they’ll be one step closer to bowl eligibility, with a struggling Arkansas team lining up next. The Cats can learn even more about themselves this coming Saturday, without ever leaving town.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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