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LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky is being extra careful not to look at Alabama State as a homecoming patsy. The Wildcats (1-6) really can’t overlook any opponent right now with a five-game losing streak entering Saturday night’s nonconference game. Ending that skid should be all the motivation they need, especially after last week’s 28-22 Southeastern Conference loss at Mississippi State.
Stopping the surging Hornets (6-2) should give Kentucky additional incentive. The FCS school has won six straight, is averaging 42 points per contest and stands second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s East division.
The first meeting between the schools comes at the right time for the Wildcats, who are hungry to win again and like the challenge of facing an Alabama State team just as determined to beat its first SEC opponent.
“I wouldn’t think our players would feel overconfident about anybody we’re playing,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said this week. “We’re worried about ourselves. I can see our players doing that. I think we’re trying to get better as a program. They (Alabama State) should be feeling good about themselves. They’ve won six games in a row.”
Kentucky’s main goals are starting faster and getting a lead, both of which it has failed to do during the losing streak. Even though the Wildcats have managed to tie Louisville, Florida and MSU early on, they quickly lost momentum and struggled to catch up.
Last week’s loss was especially painful because Kentucky drove to the Bulldogs’ 29 and had a chance to win in the final minute before failing to convert on fourth down. Stoops and the Wildcats were left with many what-ifs, but the bottom line was they shouldn’t have dug a hole to climb out of in the first place.
Kentucky definitely can’t fall behind Alabama State, which is averaging nearly 478 yards per game including 262 rushing. The Hornets are also plus-6 in turnover margin and have 38 sacks.
So much for the idea that homecoming opponents should be walkovers.
“Anybody that thinks that we can just roll out there because we’re an SEC team and win this game, you’re sadly mistaken,” Stoops said. “This team has won six games in a row, averaged over 40 points, is very balanced, very well coached I think on all sides. They’ve got playmakers. … We’ve got to manage the things we can control. That’s our preparation, how we’re doing things and getting better.”
Here are five things to look for when Alabama State visits Kentucky:
TOUGH IT OUT: In noting how South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw came off the bench despite injury to lead the Gamecocks past Missouri last week, Stoops made it clear that bumps and bruises aren’t excuses. The intent was to tell Wildcats QB Jalen Whitlow that he’s just got to play through left ankle and shoulder injuries now that the job is his. If Whitlow or teammates need any motivation on perseverance, they can just look at defensive end Bud Dupree, who came back from a chest muscle injury to post a career-high 13 tackles with a sack at Mississippi State.
HORNETS’ POTENT STING: Former Georgia back Isaiah Crowell has rushed 123 times for 833 yards and 12 touchdowns while Malcolm Cyrus has 740 yards and 6 touchdowns on 122 attempts. Crowell will be facing Kentucky for the second time; as a Bulldog freshman in 2011 he rushed twice for 11 yards in Georgia’s 19-10 victory.
RAYS OF HOPE: Despite falling short last week at Mississippi State, Kentucky can take heart in gaining 325 yards including 160 rushing against the Bulldogs, its highest totals against an SEC opponent this season. The Wildcats also ran a season-high 75 plays at MSU.
GETTING AFTER IT: Everybody seems to be having a hand in Alabama State’s 38 sacks for 292 yards that lead the SWAC. Sixteen players have at least half a sack and the biggest contributors have been LBs Kourtney Berry and Leland Baker and DE Edward Mosley with five each.
GETTING ACQUAINTED: Saturday’s game marks new territory for both schools. Kentucky is facing its first SWAC school while Alabama State is squaring off against its first SEC opponent.