Kentucky was never going to pull an epic upset at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night. No, the realistic goal for the Wildcats was to put up a fight for as long as they could, get out of that game with something to feel good about and come home healthy heading into a critical collision with Vanderbilt next week.
To that end, Kentucky’s 34-6 loss in Tuscaloosa was a success. Everyone boarded the plane with head still firmly attached to neck and, perhaps more importantly, coach Mark Stoops’ defense showed more signs of progress, however small.
“I felt like we did some better things in this game,” Stoops told reporters at Alabama, “and the bad thing is we’re still capable of so much more, and that’s what aggravates you. (But) I definitely think we grew.”
Consider: The still-unbeaten Crimson Tide produced a turnover on downs, a fumble, a field goal and a three-and-out in their first four offensive possessions. They gained just 89 yards on 27 snaps (3.3 yards per play) to open the game. By halftime, Alabama’s offense had produced only 10 points.
Eventually, the side with far more talent and considerably more depth dropped the hammer. Still, a Kentucky defense that allowed an average of 50.3 points and a minimum of 500 yards in its first three games gave up a season-low 34 points and not-terrible 488 yards to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, which came in averaging 46.5 points.
Who’d have predicted that? Certainly not the overwhelming majority of gamblers who bet on Bama to cover a 35½-point spread.
Few would’ve guessed the Cats could hold the Tide – who rushed for 242 yards against Southern California and 334 against Ole Miss – to 173 yards on the ground. Hardly domination, and it came with leading rusher Damien Harris limited to 2 carries because of injury, but better than expected.
Kentucky had allowed an average of 243 rushing yards in its first three games, then shut down South Carolina (91 yards) in last week’s win. That was Stoops’ second game taking a more active role in the defense, and the Wildcats continued to show growth in his third.
For the second straight game, there was a legitimate pass rush: 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries. For the second straight game, Kentucky contained a mobile QB, previously its Kryptonite.
Jalen Hurts came in averaging 62.8 rushing yards per game but managed just 25 on 9 carries (2.8 per) against the Cats. South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain got 11 yards on 13 carries the week before.
Nobody likes moral victories, but the fact is Kentucky (2-3, 1-2 SEC) needed one on defense. Fans needed to see progress and the team needed a reason to hope that it can come home now and beat the offensively challenged Commodores and get back to .500, back on track to chase its first bowl berth since 2010.
“We’ve been talking about improvement and growing as a team,” Stoops said. “I think we did that in certain phases and maybe took a step back in others, but we’ll keep on working.”