They almost made it.
The football Wildcats emerged from that gauntlet run of four straight games against Top 15 teams with four more losses – not surprising, given the level of competition and the lack of experienced depth on this Kentucky team. But the Big Picture goals for the Cats included surviving that brutal run with their collective psyche intact, as well as their physical well-being.
They almost made it.
The Louisville game? Close at halftime. Florida? Gators had to work hard to score, and managed just a field goal in the second half. South Carolina? It was all Kentucky in the fourth quarter of a one-touchdown game.
But Alabama was the steepest of all hills, and the Wildcats knew it would take a heck of a climb to look up at the end of the game and feel good about the rest of the season.
Instead, they watched as two trainers helped Jalen Whitlow off the field, scrapping the offensive game plan which included a lot of designed runs by the quarterback. Backup Maxwell Smith had taken, according to the coaches, fewer than 20 percent of the snaps in practice that week and suddenly was handed the reins. Here, son – go beat the nation’s top-ranked team.
The defense battled as best it could, forcing two turnovers in a scoreless first quarter. But time of possession in the first half favored the Crimson Tide two-to-one, which is why it rolled into the locker room at halftime with an easy lead.
Kentucky managed a touchdown in the third quarter, snapping both the Cats’ scoreless string in that frame this season and ‘Bama’s run of touchdown-free periods. But there was little else to smile about. The young Wildcats’ self-image had taken a beating as well.
Thankfully, UK has extra days to prepare for its next opponent, Mississippi State. The Cats face the Bulldogs in Starkville a week from Thursday. If Whitlow’s ankle responds to treatment, he could be ready to play.
If not, Mark Stoops has a difficult decision to make.
Smith was only 7-of-16 for 76 yards against the Tide. They aren’t gaudy numbers, but neither are they an indictment. Unless you’re a QB whose nickname is “Johnny Football,” you’ve struggled to move your team against Alabama.
Still, Smith looks very little like the quarterback who seemed so at ease last season with the offense then-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders had designed especially for him. The confidence, the quick release, the completions – missing in SEC action (the Miami game notwithstanding).
If Whitlow’s ankle sprain is not of the dreaded “high” variety, he likely will be in the shotgun when UK lines up in Stark Vegas. If, however, it keeps the sophomore on the sideline, that means either Patrick Towles or Reece Phillips will be prepped as the backup.
It says here, whoever it is, Stoops needs to be prepared to use him.
Unless Smith begins to show the form that carried him to nearly a thousand yards in less than four full games in 2012, the UK head coach and offensive coordinator Neal Brown should consider taking a look at either. Smith already has missed time with an injury this season, and his throwing motion suggests that he’s still hampered in some way.
This is not to suggest a quarterback change will land the Wildcats in a bowl game; nor should they give up on Smith, a proven commodity when he’s at his best.
But Stoops’s mantra basically has been, “Work hard, get better.” Given the remaining games on its schedule, if this team does that, it can win some of its remaining games. That’s invaluable, given the recruits who already have committed, as well as the ones who are still considering Kentucky blue. Working hard and getting better are admirable goals. Victories are the best way to prove they’re happening.
And yes, playing time for either backup QB would scotch plans to redshirt whoever might get the nod. So what? As long as you haven’t taken one already, you can redshirt during any season. Remember – Jeff Sheppard took a redshirt prior to what would have been his senior basketball season. Ask him how it worked out and all he’d have to do is flash his 1998 NCAA championship ring. Or perhaps dust off his Final Four Most Outstanding Player trophy.
We knew this was going to be a bruising run of games in a tough season. But potential wins lie ahead, although now comes word that injured Missouri QB James Franklin could be healthy by the time the Tigers visit Kentucky.
Perhaps Whitlow will be healthy by then. If not, and if Smith keeps struggling, Stoops could have another tough decision to make in this, his rookie season as a head coach.
And unless you have a roster full of studs like the one we saw dressed in Crimson Saturday night, it doesn’t get much easier.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)