'We're good players too': Kentucky football embraces challenge vs. No. 1 Alabama
LEXINGTON – The outcome of Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt was never really in doubt after the Wildcats took a 17-point lead early in the third quarter.
But with every defensive miscue, Mark Stoops’ ire seemed to grow hotter.
The defense’s inability to close out the game spoiled Stoops’ ability to find much-needed snaps for young backups. When the Commodores pulled within three points with 30 seconds remaining, Kentucky was only a successful onside kick and Hail Mary away from disaster. Josh Ali ended those worries by recovering Vanderbilt’s onside attempt, but Stoops could no longer overlook the defense’s struggles.
“I sit there and watch us and at times I see a group of young men that just wants somebody else to make the play,” Stoops said Monday. “They want some miraculous call to stop the play. ‘Coach, you call something good so we can stop this play because I don’t want to stop it, I’m not going to make a play. I want my neighbor to make a play, but I don’t want to make a play, or I want to do my own thing. I don’t want to execute the defense, I just want to do my own thing so I can get a stat.’
“That’s what I see. It’s pissing me off, to be honest with you.”
This worry was almost certainly as much about the size of the challenge looming as it was about failing to put winless Vanderbilt away.
Kentucky’s reward for snapping a two-game losing streak is a game at No. 1 Alabama followed by one at No. 5 Florida. The Crimson Tide and Gators ranked third and seventh respectively in points scored per game. Both are averaging more than 500 yards per game.
Alabama has been held to fewer than 40 points just once this season, when it scored 38 in a season-opening win at Missouri. Its last two wins over Tennessee and Mississippi State came by a combined 89-17 margin.
Stoops thinks Alabama might have the best offense he has ever seen as a head coach or coordinator. Simply put, if Kentucky’s defense plays the way it did against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats are certain to be embarrassed on Saturday.
“There are plays to be made and we are not making them,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “Some come down to recognizing the formation. Some come down to play calls. I probably should have called some better play calls. Some come down to a guy has to execute what was called.”
The sports books apparently have little faith in Kentucky’s ability to fix its defensive issues in time to slow down Alabama’s juggernaut.
As of Thursday, Alabama remained a 30-point favorite in the game, according to BetMGM. Kentucky has only scored 30 points itself in three of seven games this season.
That perception has clearly reached the Kentucky locker room.
“It’s all we’re hearing, Bama,” senior nose guard Quinton Bohanna said. “I think when you got to go against Quinton Bohanna, Josh Paschal and Phil Hoskins, that’s three hell-of-a-players too. I’m kind of tired of hearing they’re good players. Of course, they’re good players … but we’re good players too.”
Bohanna acknowledged “a little extra pep” in the locker room this week while preparing for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, but to have any chance at the upset Kentucky players must resist the urge to use the size of the challenge as justification for trying to abandon the game plan in hopes of proving themselves against Alabama’s measuring stick.
For NFL draft prospects like Bohanna, a strong showing against Alabama could go far in boosting their profile. But the problems from the Vanderbilt game described by Stoops go hand in hand with players going off script by trying to do too much.
Stoops promised those issues can be fixed with the proper attitude and work ethic, but even those adjustments might not be enough the next two weeks.
“Believe me, the challenge is going to be great,” Stoops said. “We all understand that. We are probably playing against one of the greatest offenses you’ve seen in a long time. And after that, you’re going to see one just the same.”