By LARRY VAUGHT
Maxwell Smith’s impressive play in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Western Kentucky earned him a chance to start at quarterback Saturday when Kentucky hosts Miami (Ohio).
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was quick to note that he was not blaming former starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow for the loss, and UK players say they can’t depend only on Smith to win this week.
““It’s not just Max. It’s plenty of senior leaders on this team and guys that’s not seniors such as Max that need to step up,” senior running back Jonathan George said. “We need to step up and be those type of leaders and when adversity comes, we need to be the ones to pick the team up and get us ready to play. It’s very disappointing (the way UK played against Western), especially since we’ve worked so hard. But we feel like we just have to take it as a learning experience and because nothing’s going to be given to us.”
“We aren’t going to let this team fall apart. We’re going to keep moving forward,” senior running back Raymond Sanders said. “I feel like we moved the ball pretty well against Western when we didn’t hurt ourselves. The defense stepped up big at times. It was 21-17 at halftime and then we hurt ourselves with penalties and execution and did not put points on the board.
“We are doing the right things. If you keep doing the right things over and over, good things will happen. That’s why this game is not about Max being the starter. We just have to go in 100 percent with who is in at quarterback and do our job to help whoever win.”
One plus for Smith is that Miami’s pass defense gave up five scoring passes last week in a loss to Marshall. Smith’s forte is passing while Whitlow’s strength is running.
“Every week, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the game and prepare to win the game. With that being said, you have to build on who you are. That’s where us as a staff are still doing the best we can to put our players in a position to win, to move the ball, to stop people on defense. I think that’s the quandary that you get in to as a play-caller sometimes. What can you do? What can you handle?” Stoops said. “(Offensive coordinator) Neal (Brown) has full autonomy to do what he needs to do to move the ball. I have tremendous trust and confidence in the whole offensive staff to find that balance, to do what we need to do to win this game and to build on our future.”
Smith felt the same way when the coaches started Whitlow last week.
“The coaches made the best decision that they felt was best for the team, and I was just ready when my number was called,” Smith said after the Western game. “We’re all frustrated. But plain and simple: They were better than us today. Plain and simple, they beat us in every aspect.”
Smith said he learned from watching during last week’s game before he came in to complete eight of 13 passes for 125 yards and one score.
“I know I made a few mistakes when I was playing, but I thought I played OK,” he said.
Brown said UK is not changing “schematically” with Smith at quarterback.
“Will we look different with Jalen at quarterback than Max? Yes. Yes, we will. But does the base of the offense change? No. Maybe what I call does, but the offense doesn’t,” Brown said.
Both Brown and Stoops said Whitlow would still play Saturday.
“Jalen will play in this game,” Brown said.
“I think Jalen has deserved an opportunity to play. But again, if Max is going out there and rolling, things are going good, then we’ll stay with Max. But yes, we want Jalen to play. We believe he can bring some diversity to our package and make some people prepare for some different things with his skill set,” Stoops said.
The UK head coach noted again Thursday that Smith was not “perfect” against Western Kentucky.
“Like I said earlier in the week, Jalen did some really good things. And like I said all along, it has a lot to do with the other players around him, when you move the football or don’t move the football,” Stoops said. “It’s not at all ever on the quarterback. But he made less mistakes and he did some of the basic things that we’re looking for correctly and distributed the ball where we needed to. So that was the big thing with helping us move the football.”
Smith hopes UK can take advantage of Miami’s pass defense.
“Coach (Brown) told me (Marshall) was the leading passing team in the country, so following up that performance might be a little hard. Obviously, Miami of Ohio’s got a chip on their shoulder just like we have a chip on ours,” Smith said. “I think it’s all about us getting better, not really about what they’re doing, but what we’ve got to do.”