LEXINGTON — Kentucky’s 48-14 win over Alabama State was more a reflection of poor play by the visiting Hornets rather than significant improvement by coach Mark Stoops’ Wildcats.
Alabama State was simply out-classed, physically and mentally. The Hornets spent much of the first quarter throwing around cheap shots, verbal and physical, and the Wildcats — to their credit — largely didn’t swallow the bait.
“The guys were coming out, trying to get in our head and trying to make us rattled, but I’m glad everybody stayed composed,” said UK junior defensive end Bud Dupree.
That said, the Wildcats did not take the steps forward in terms of execution and maturity that Stoops had hoped they would.
Stoops was asked if he saw the confidence of his players build as the game wore on and good things happened on the field.
“I don’t know,” Stoops said. “I’m not trying to be ... believe me, we know any win is a win. I’ll take one more than anything, but it just feels like we have a lot of work to do. It feels like we’re still not executing the way we can, and that’s frustrating.”
None of this is a shock, however. Stoops’ first UK team has SEC-caliber talent scattered about the roster, but many of the players are young and not yet ready to give the kind of consistency needed to win at this level.
The most glaring example of that is at quarterback. That’s no news flash. Maxwell Smith has had shoulder problems dating back to early last season and hasn’t been the same.
It was expected that Jalen Whitlow would take the bull by the horns, so to speak, this fall, but every time you start to feel like Whitlow is nearing the corner, he, too, suffers an injury.
Whitlow played on a sprained ankle yet again in the Alabama State game and showed flashes (doesn’t he always?) of promise, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two others.
I don’t believe there’s much doubt that Whitlow is going to be the guy, not only through the rest of this season, but in 2014.
And if he continues to battle injury, I get the feeling that freshman Reese Phillips will get a chance, though that probably won’t be until next season. No reason to burn Phillips’ redshirt now.
It doesn’t seem likely that Smith will play a significant role, and who knows what’s going on with Patrick Towles?
Expected QB signee Drew Barker from Conner is having a good senior season but not the kind of campaign that leads anyone to believe he’ll be behind center as a true freshman.
The good news about the immediate future is that there shouldn’t be as much pressure on the quarterback if the guys around him, on the line and at wideout and running back, continue to improve.
While the Wildcats still have a shot at six wins and bowl eligibility, all indications are they are playing for pride in these last four games.
An unexpectedly outstanding Missouri team comes to Commonwealth Stadium Saturday for a noon kickoff. Road tilts at Vanderbilt and Georgia follow the next two weekends, followed by the season closer at home with Tennessee Nov. 30.
Hard to see where the wins will come from, though Kentucky’s best shots are clearly Vandy and Tennessee.
Best case scenario is that the Wildcats find the strength to keep battling these next three weeks and then close with a win over Tennessee.
Then starts the most important season of all — closing the deal on a top 15-20 recruiting class.
At the very least, Stoops’ first season at UK has been interesting. And UK football hasn’t been interesting for a long time.
UK NOTES: There was no word out of the UK camp Sunday about the extent of injuries suffered by Ryan Timmons (ankle, shoulder), Javess Blue (eye) and Alex Montgomery (leg/ankle).
Those are, arguably, Kentucky’s three best wide receivers, and will be needed if the Wildcats are to have any shot at upsetting Missouri. It was encouraging, though, to see wideouts Jeff Badet and Demarco Robinson step up versus Alabama State with four receptions each.