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By LARRY VAUGHT
It wasn’t a Southeastern Conference opponent or a ranked team, but no one at Kentucky was complaining. For the rebuilding Wildcats, there are no bad wins.
Kentucky played like a 27-point favorite while dismantling Alabama State 48-14 Saturday night to end a five-game losing skid, including four losses to top 20 teams.
This game was over early as quarterback Jalen Whitlow quickly showed his sore ankle was just fine with an 88-yard run — the longest ever at Commonwealth Stadium — to score on the game’s second play when he went around the right side, cut back into the middle, broke one tackle and got a closing block by receiver Demarco Robinson. Whitlow rushed for 101 yards, two touchdowns and threw for 186 yards, two touchdowns — and made an impressive run just before halftime to gain enough yards to set up a field goal and get out of bounds with :03 on the clock.
Freshman JoJo Kemp also had a big game with 67 yards rushing and one score — even though his grandmother, Betty Luke, was buried earlier in the day in Florida — as the UK offense ran for 233 yards.
“Any time you get a win, you have to appreciate it,” said UK coach Mark Stoops. “Our players have been working hard, fighting and scratching and clawing to get a win. We will have a lot of work to do. We can all see that. I feel like we can do a lot of things better. Believe me, we know any win is a win, but it just feels like we have a lot of work to do and are just not executing the way we can.”
Still, it was a win, something UK had not experienced for almost two months.
“I am happy for our kids,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “We got to play a lot of kids the second half. By no means was it perfect. But we are playing clean football. This was our fourth straight game without a turnover (a school record) and we only had two penalties. We ran the ball well.”
Kentucky did do all that and after giving up an early touchdown, shut down the visitors until giving up 68-yard scoring bomb with a 48-7 lead. But even the good news was tempered by some costly/freakish plays.
— Raymond Sanders ran 17 yards but fumbled the ball into the end zone. Fortunately for Kentucky, Robinson recovered to give UK the touchdown.
— For the third time this season, Kentucky got beat on a throwback pass.The only reason it didn’t go for a score was because Malcom Cyrus tripped in the open field.
— An Alabama State punt hit Josh Forrest in the helmet as he was retreating to block. But Robinson alertly picked it up at returned the ball 23 yards.
— Freshman Alex Montgomery caught a 6-yard scoring pass for a 21-7 lead. As one might expect, he was excited and leaped into the air to chest bump Robinson. However, another UK player bumped into them and Montgomery went down with a knee injury. Only at UK could a receiver score and then go down with a celebration injury.
— Or only at UK could a receiver — Javess Blue — get hit in the eye with a football during warmups and not play. He was UK’s leading receiver and top kickoff returner.
Kentucky also had receiver Ryan Timmons (shoulder, ankle) and backup running back Jonathan George (ankle) leave the game — and that’s not what UK needs depth-wise with four SEC games still to play.
“There were some very good things out there, some that were frustrating,” Stoops said. “We desperately needed a win, and we got on. I felt like we were pretty solid (defensively) the rest of the way after giving up that early score. Sometimes it is just frustrating … maybe it is the former defensive coordinator in me. I am always nitpicking and upset with plays out here. But I am just trying to get us better.”
That’s because to win any of the next four games and improve on last year’s 2-10 finish, UK has to play better against opponents that will have superior talent and provide challenges Alabama State could not.
“We know where we are,” Brown said. “The kids are working their tails off. But we know there’s a lot more we can do.”