Kentucky opened the second quarter with possession, in the redzone, and trailing by just four. A prime spot to take the lead against the nation’s No. 1 team in their home stadium. After a third-and-goal quarterback failed to produce a lead-changing touchdown, the Wildcats lined up for a 24-yard field goal, intending to settle for a one-point deficit.
Then long snapper Cade Degraw’s feed sailed over the hands of holder Colin Goodfellow, taking away not only Kentucky’s chance at points, but its opportunity at winning with it.
That play represented a microcosm of the majority of Kentucky’s first half: execution was there, but inside the twenties, nothing could happen correctly. The huge emotional swings following a week of even larger emotional swings ultimately proved to much to bear.
“We at least have an opportunity to go 7-6. Instead we snap it and lose 40 yards and give them great field position,” head coach Mark Stoops said following his team’s 63-3 disheartening defeat at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide. “That’s a big momentum killer for your team… [it] kind of deflates you.”
After a different poor snap ended the first Wildcat possession, Kentucky’s offense came out hot. It moved the ball down the field with ease. A powerful Kavosiey Smoke run carried defenders down to the two-yard line, and appeared to put the Cats in great position for six points, but a holding killed momentum and forced a field goal attempt.
Similar things happened each of the next two drives, forcing the attempts where the errant snap occurred and another questionable snap that led to a miss wide right.
The Crimson Tide have the top-redzone defense in the SEC, so finding paydirt was no easy chore. But AJ Rose believed the opportunities to do so.
“We didn’t take advantage of [the scoring chances],” he said. “We definitely could’ve called some plays to even the game up… you can’t dwell on it. You got to move forward.”
It’s difficult to beat anyone with numerous mistakes, but there’s another level of focus required when going into Tuscaloosa. Any misstep against a Nick Saban team is going to be exposed and attacked. Not even a flawless effort guarantees success, but early mistakes, as we saw, will put you behind the eight ball before you can blink.
“They’re everything that you think they are when you see them in person,” Stoops said. “They can play physical; big strong backs with a physical line and they’re explosive getting the ball down the field. Their receivers catch everything that is remotely close to them.”
Alabama is elite; losing to them is by no means no shock. But there was a clear difference on how the teams operate during momentum-swinging moments.
After the high snap carried close to midfield, former Kentucky commit Mac Jones took the Crimson Tide over 50 yards in less than two minutes, hooking up with DeVonta Smith on his Alabama and SEC career-leading 32nd receiving touchdown.
In the span of two minutes, the game went from competitive to seemingly insurmountable for a Kentucky offense that, outside of the Ole Miss and Vanderbilt contests, has been pedestrian at best.
A second half devoid of motivation didn’t help matters, as Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood didn’t have a real chance to show their stuff in an effort to gain a leg up for 2021’s quarterback job.
“It wasn’t the greatest of situations to put either of those guys into,” Stoops said. “It was a tough spot.”
As Stoops and staff’s formation of Kentucky into an SEC contender rolls on, it’s clear that a lack of comparative talent at the skill positions isn’t the only reason the Wildcats are losing games against some of the better teams in the league. Better execution, discipline, and situational awareness are all key dividers between the Cats and the currently elite.
The good news? Those are easier things to fix than matching up in recruiting at the skill spots.
In time, the Cats will learn how to manage the biggest moments. Sometimes, like today, it’s just more painful to watch than others.