LEXINGTON – The Kentucky Wildcats came into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State hoping to see progress from freshman quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles ... hoping that their play would give us at least a glimpse of what the future may provide down the stretch this season for coach Joker Phillips and his team.
They came out of the game with a ho-hum 27-14 loss to the 20th-ranked Bulldogs, with an ankle sprain for Towles, uneven play from Whitlow, and a team so banged up on both sides of the ball that the Wildcats resemble more of a high school all-star team rather than a group ready to win games in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky fell to 1-5 overall and 0-3 in the SEC, while Mississippi State improved to 5-0 and 2-0. Next up for the Wildcats is Arkansas in Fayetteville and then home to Georgia and at Missouri.
It’s hard to see a scenario now where the Wildcats are anything better than 1-8 and 0-6 in league going into a home game with Vanderbilt on Nov. 3.
“Our injury situation continues to mount,” Phillips said, mentioning a head injury to starting safety Ashely Lowery and a torn hamstring suffered by cornerback Martavius Neloms, in addition to the ankle sprain suffered by Towles that has UK down to one quarterback for the most part.
“We continue to get younger and younger,” Phillips said. “We have now played 14 true freshmen. At one time it was four of five true freshmen competing with our defense and numerous others on our special teams. It’s starting to show up on special teams more than anything.
“It’s not an excuse. It’s just facts. And we’ve got to get these guys better. We’ve got another tough road game next week versus Arkansas. We have to go back to work tomorrow.”
Phillips tried to look at the bright side. “It does help depth down the road because you have to play so many people, but someone has to step up.”
Next man up
The UK coach said the motto coming into Saturday as the injuries mount has been “Next man up.”
But, Phillips admits now: “We’re running out of next men.”
It would at least be exciting for the Kentucky fans if they could see more from the freshman quarterbacks, Whitlow and Towles. But what they got from Whitlow was not too good Saturday (10 of 21 passing for 73 yards) and too little from Towles.
Towles played three series in the first half against Mississippi State. He led Kentucky on an 80-yard scoring drive on his first series, getting the TD on a 32-yard pass to La’Rod King. His second series was comprised of three runs by Jonathan George (10 carries for 21 yards in all) that netted five yards, and on his third series Towles took a sack he shouldn’t have taken and hurt his ankle.
“I told him all week if he didn’t make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hands, he might get his leg broke,” said Randy Sanders, Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. “And he got caught holding on to the ball one time, didn’t have his eyes in the right place, held on to the ball and got hurt. “
Towles was five of six passing for 71 yards.
Sanders said Towles would have played a lot more in the second half had it not been for the injury. And his review of Towles’ play was absolutely glowing compared to his view of Whitlow’s showing.
Asked to assess the play of Whitlow, Sanders responded with a long pause and then replied: “It wasn’t .... I’m going to answer that nicely. It wasn’t close to what I expected or what we need.”
“I did a couple of good things but too many bad things,” Whitlow agreed. “I left too many plays on the field today.”
Options on offense
Are the Wildcats limited to a run game with the athletic Whitlow in the game?
“Well, the way we executed in the passing game, yes, we are,” Sanders said. “We had some great looks to throw the ball, and we had some people open, and we’ve got to hit them, no question. We’re getting good looks throwing the ball because they were obviously playing the run. Sometimes they dropped eight, and when you do that the windows get tight, but honestly, the windows were bigger than what I expected with some of that, and we’ve just got to execute.
“The way it was going, we probably would have seen more of Towles today ... the way it was happening and what I was seeing. I don’t think either one of them is truly ready to carry the load a whole game, and that’s kind of the situation we’ve been thrown into right now.”
The good news for Towles is that he could still redshirt, via what is called a medical hardship, if his ankle is deemed too bad for him to get much out of this season. But clearly that is not what Towles wants or believes will be the case.
“I know it’s not too serious,” he said of the ankle. “I am just going to do my best to get on the field. Coach Phillips gave me the opportunity to play, and I want to play. If that wasn’t apparent when I came out there and burned my redshirt now, I want to play. This medical redshirt stuff is great if I can’t get back on the field, but I want to get back on the field.
“I loved it,” Towles said of his opportunity to burn his redshirt (apparently) and play Saturday. “I loved every minute of it. It’s what you dream about when you grow up, and having it come to fruition was awesome.”
Cats hang tough
Despite all that’s working against the Wildcats, they were not out of Saturday’s game until late.
The Bulldogs led early 14-0 on a 10-yard pass from junior quarterback Tyler Russell to Adrian Marcus on their first series, and extended the lead late in the first quarter on a 31-yard run by LaDarius Perkins.
Towles’ pass to King brought UK back within 14-7 late in the second quarter, and then MSU extended it to 20-7 with two field goals late in the half.
It went to 27-7 early in the third on a 27-yard pass from Russell to Chad Bumphis.
But Kentucky did not quit. The Wildcats tacked on a three-yard touchdown run by Whitlow late in the third quarter and had several chances to get closer, but could not cash in.
UK’s best chance to make Mississippi State worry came late in the third quarter when Avery Williamson recovered an onside kick near midfield. But the Wildcats could not move the ball. That opportunity ended with Whitlow taking a sack he couldn’t take on a third-and-five play with UK in four-down territory. Instead it went to 4th-and-15 and the Wildcats had to punt.
That’s just the way it is at this point.
UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter said he was proud of the effort shown by his young pups on the defensive side.
“I couldn’t be more happy and proud of our kids because they battled their tails off,” Minter said. “We bent on a few things, and we broke on a few things, and yet we hung in there in the second half and gave us at least a chance to hang in the ballgame.
“They are trying hard to do the best they can. We’re dropping like flies, but that’s part of football.”
Mississippi State finished with a 427-228 advantage on Kentucky in total offense.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, this game leaves little more than a mess. I’m not sure now how much we can see this last half of the season that is going to encourage athletics director Mitch Barnhart to keep Phillips and his staff around.
Jennifer Smith of the Lexington Herald-Leader asked Phillips afterward: “Where do you go from here?”
Phillips’ response was telling in what amounted to more or less a non-answer.
“Well, we go back to work tomorrow,” said Phillips. “We have to get ready for a tough Arkansas team on the road. That’s where we go, we go to Arkansas.”
Change of plans
Most frustrating of all is that Kentucky does this while nearly completely revamping the team on the fly, especially on offense.
“Obviously we’re having to play much different than we planned to play and what we wanted to play,” Sanders said about the current state of the Kentucky offense. “We worked all spring and then all fall camp and then the first three-four weeks playing one way, and now we’ve been thrust into playing a completely different way.
“Relying on a running game as much as we are forced to right now is not what our linemen have practiced, not what our backs have practiced ... it’s not what anybody has practiced. So in some ways, it’s kind of like starting over, and it looked like we started over today.”
“It is frustrating,” Philliips admitted. “We thought we were going to be really good on offense, especially after what you saw the first couple of games. And we thought our defense would continue to improve. We thought we could put it all together and be pretty good.
“It’s still out there. It’s still out there.”
But Phillips did not sound convincing.