By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Question his execution, but don’t question Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow’s toughness. At least not after the way he hung in here Saturday in UK’s 48-17 loss to No. 9 Missouri.
Coach Mark Stoops had questioned Whitlow’s toughness earlier this season, but he did not let a swarming Missouri defense or painful left shoulder — at times he had trouble getting up off the ground after taking a hit — keep him from running the offense. He led three drives of 70-plus yards, ran for 44 yards and one score, and threw for 225 yards.
Stoops said he noticed that Whitlow played with more toughness.
“He had some tough runs against tough, physical defense,” said Stoops. “It was nice to see. You could tell he was hurting. He is learning to compete. I thought he did some good things. He led our team good. We need to improve, but we need to play better around him.”
But does playing in pain give him more credibility/leadership with teammates?
“I think so. It does,” Stoops said.
Whitlow admitted he was in pain. His left shoulder hurt, especially after hits. He acknowledged at times he had trouble even getting up. At times his left wrist hurt. Late in the game, his ankle — he hurt that against Alabama — flared up again.
“We respect him a lot,” receiver Demarco Robinson said. “He went out to help his team and stayed out there. We just have to do more to help him.”
Whitlow helped UK (2-7) amass 204 of its 369 total yards in the third quarter. He finished a 73-yard touchdown drive with a 1-yard run, completed a 40-yard pass to Raymond Sanders and had a 6-yard run to set up Sanders’ 1-yard score to cap a 75-yard play.
“We just came out on fire in the third quarter, but we have to do that more,” Whitlow said as he held his wrist. “We should do what we did in the third quarter all the time. I am not discouraged by any means. We’ve just got to get better.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown knew Whitlow got better and he appreciated the pain Whitlow played through most of the game.
“I think he showed a lot of guts,” Brown said. “We challenged them all at halftime, him included. That first half was as bad a half as we’ve played. We played hungry football the third quarter and he was the catalyst. This offense is starving for somebody to be a leader and I am proud of how he competed.”
Leadership comes slowly. The soft-spoken Whitlow is not a screamer, and not overly emotional.
“It’s always good for the quarterback to be the leader and I am working on being more vocal,” Whitlow said. “I am not one to scream at guys. I think that is overrated. I am not one to get in a guy’s face. I prefer just to lay it all on the line.”
Sanders said he sees Whitlow’s leadership improving, and it will keep getting better.
“He does struggle with being vocal, but he’s only a sophomore. It is growing on him. As the years go on, he’ll be fine as a leader. He had a great game today and he’ll continue to grow as a leader,” Sanders said.
But it takes more than just toughness and leadership, even from a quarterback, to beat the nation’s No. 9 team and Kentucky simply self-destructed too many times.
— UK drove 76 yards on its first possession, but couldn’t get into the end zone after getting a first down inside the 10-yard line and had to settle for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
— Landon Foster shanked a punt 13 yards to set Missouri up for only a 39-yard scoring drive on its first touchdown. But that was not as bad as getting his next punt blocked inside the UK 5 to set up an even easier score. “He just shanked that. No excuse for that. Then we got the one bocked. That wasn’t his fault,” Stoops said.
— Trailing 21-3, Kentucky recovered a fumbled punt into the Missouri 10, but the play was negate by an illegal formation penalty on UK on the punt. “That was a huge turnaround,” Brown said.
— After driving 73 yards to score to start the second half and cut the gap to 28-10, UK held Missouri and then Whitlow hit Sanders for a 40-yard pass completion. However, Sanders fumbled — “He has to hold on to the ball,” Stoops said — at the end of the play and and Missouri scored to go up 35-10. Kentucky had not lost a turnover since Sept. 28 against Florida.
— UK drove 75 yards to score and make it 35-17 late in period three only to give up a 62-yard kickoff return and then was called for a personal foul on Missouri’s first play. On fourth-and-three at the Kentucky 7-yard line, Missouri quarterback Maty Mauck picked on UK cornerback Nate Willis again for a score and 41-17 lead.
“We had some tough matchups,” Stoops said. “It wasn’t a great effort by us. It wasn’t. I may get frustrated, but I am not discouraged. We will get it done.”