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October 5, 2009

Upon Further Review: Alabama at Kentucky

University of Alabama coach Nick Saban was correct about Saturday being a physical game, with Kentucky making numerous hard hits at Commonwealth Stadium.

The difference was that the No. 3 Crimson Tide (5-0 overall, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) was both the smarter and more opportunistic team, with four turnovers keying the 38-20 victory. Time and time again when the Wildcats made a mistake, Alabama capitalized.

"We killed ourselves," said Kentucky sophomore wide receiver Randall Cobb, who had 58 receiving yards, 21 rushing, 58 on punt returns, 20 on kick returns and even attempted a pass.

"Alabama was more of a downhill running team," said senior linebacker Micah Johnson, who made 10 tackles. "We knew what they were going to try to do, and that they were going to come in here and try to blow us out with the run, and I felt like our defense held up pretty good against it."

According to Saban, the key to a successful season is that the team continues to improve, which Kentucky did despite coming off a 41-7 home loss to No. 1 Florida.

The question now is will Alabama?

Here are the awards, dominated by one player in particular:

Player of the game: Junior linebacker Rolando McClain made 12 tackles, was in on three turnovers with an interception, forced fumble and tipped ball, and credited with a hurry. We saw him miss a tackle, but he may have tripped over this cape.

Play and hit of the game: They are one and the same. When McClain saw where running back Derrick Locke tucked the ball after making a short reception he punched it out into sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw's hands, who returned it 45 yards for a back-breaking touchdown with 21 seconds remaining in the first half. Honorable mention for hit of the game goes to freshman Nico Johnson for his kick-return hit on Cobb in the second half.

Statistic of the game: Alabama scored 17 points off turnovers.

Did you notice? Senior defensive end Brandon Deaderick made his first start of the season roughly a month after being shot during a botched carjacking.

Before we get to 10 other things you may have missed, here are some bonus numbers:

13: The combined total of sacks (two), tackles for a loss (five), pass break-ups (two), and quarterback pressures (four). Last week that added up to 27 against Arkansas, when Alabama created just one turnover compared to four against Kentucky.

7: The number of categories Alabama ranks in the top 10 nationally, including second in total defense (222.2), fourth in rushing defense (64.4), eighth in scoring offense (40.0), ninth in passing efficiency (161.53), and tenth in rushing offense (228.2), punt returns (18.81) and pass defense (157.8). The Tide has fallen just out of the top 10 in pass-efficiency defense (94.51, 11th), sacks (3.0, tied 11th), scoring defense (14.4, 13th) and total offense (462.8, 14th).

200: The total number of yards Alabama has scored in its first five games, only the fifth time it's reached that mark so quickly. The other four teams were 1920 (243 points), 1919 (225), 1979 (219), and 1921 (211).

1. The wind: Kentucky coach Rich Brooks calling timeout with five seconds remaining in the first quarter so his kicker could attempt a 49-yard attempt toward the east end zone demonstrated just how problematic the swirling wind was, especially heading toward the west end zone. Junior quarterback Greg McElroy completed just one of his first six passes attempts throwing against the wind in the first quarter when Alabama was going after replacement cornerback Randall Burden. He was 6-of-9 heading toward the same end zone in the third quarter but instead of throwing deep like in the first quarter his passes were shorter and more manageable. After the first quarter, McElroy was 14-of-20 for 144 yards. Overall, he was 7-for-11 and 52 yards on third downs, and 2-of-5 in the red zone with both completions for touchdowns.

2. Kentucky attacked the linebackers: Alabama essentially had three linebackers in new spots and the Wildcats went after them. Senior Cory Reamer held his own, but the 5-yard run right at him showed the physical difference from Dont'a Hightower (which isn't a knock on Reamer but high praise of Hightower). The Tide played a lot of nickel defense which Kentucky countered with physical play and runs off the edges. The Wildcats also had the advantage of John Conner, probably the league's best blocking fullback. Of the 69 tackles (solo and assists) that were credited to the Tide the four linebackers made 25, with three tackles for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and recovery, and three quarterback hurries.

3. Where's Julio: Give credit to Kentucky for trying to take him out of the offense and the previously mentioned wind contributed. McElroy threw seven balls his direction, resulting in two catches for 13 yards, but his impact was still felt. For example, on junior Darius Hanks' first career touchdown Jones ran a short route underneath which attracted two defenders and left Hanks running a corner route a step ahead of cornerback Martavius Neloms. In theory, the more other players keep making plays the less defenses will be able to focus so much on Jones, but regardless Alabama needs to get him the ball more.

4. The other receivers: Senior tight end Colin Peek had a breakout game in terms of receiving with six catches for 65 yards and his first touchdown for Alabama. His 21-yard catch over the middle was a turning point as the Tide was facing third-and-7 and its own 6 midway through the second quarter (more on that later). Alabama has had a different player lead the team in receptions in each game: Jones 4-46 Virginia Tech; Mike McCoy 5-100 FIU; Marquis Maze 4-49 North Texas; and both Roy Upchurch 3-30 and Mark Ingram 3-21 Arkansas). Overall, Alabama receivers had 57 yards after the catch.

5. The 97-yard touchdown drive: When Peek made his key third-down catch, the Tide had just 4 passing yards and had gone three-and-out four straight possessions. McElroy completed 5 of 6 passes for 81 yards to lead the drive, including 3-for-3 on third downs, with the lone miss a deep attempt to Maze. The 13 plays tied Alabama's longest drive of the season (done four times now), and the 6:50 made it the longest in terms of time. The Tide had the ball for 11:20 of the second quarter after Kentucky had it for 12 minutes in the first quarter.

6. The turnovers: The four turnovers matched Alabama's season total, and only the first (sophomore safety Mark Barron's second interception of the season on a bad decision by quarterback Mark Hartline with Upshaw pressuring) didn't result in points. McClain's interception came off a read and dropping back to catch a ball intended for Cobb on a crossing route. As for his tip, senior cornerback Marquis Johnson was covering Kyrus Lanxter when the ball went off the receiver and McClain, trying to tip it to himself, kept it alive for senior linebacker Eryk Anders' first career pickoff. Excluding the 7-yard carry to run out the clock at halftime, it was the third straight Kentucky possession to end in a turnover, when the score went from 14-6 to 31-6.

7. Where did the Tide run? The biggest difference between Ingram and Trent Richardson was on display: experience. For example, after trying to make a cut and coming dangerously close to taking a safety you know someone talked to Richardson on the sideline while the play was reviewed because he plowed ahead for 5 yards on the subsequent snap to start the 97-yard drive. Later, had the true freshman bounced left into space he might have had a big gain on a 2-yard run. Meanwhile, Ingram's change-of-direction touchdown, when he found the hole on the right side and went 32 yards, was his ninth touchdown of the season. Alabama had its greatest success running around the right end, with 10 carries for 65 yards. Senior Roy Upchurch's 13-yard gain was his first carry since the first quarter against FIU.

8. Who was thrown at? Almost every pass that Kentucky completed was either thrown under the coverage or to a player out of the backfield. The one important exception was the home-run ball Cobb caught for a 45-yard touchdown, when senior cornerback Javier Arenas didn't know that the ball was coming and the receiver got away with a small push. Otherwise, the Wildcats got almost nothing against the Tide secondary.

9. The Wildcat: Alabama didn't run the formation, but Kentucky did a handful of times with Cobb behind center. What every future UK opponent noticed on a dropped pass was that he has a good arm. What every Alabama opponent noticed was that the Tide appeared more comfortable against the formation because it's obviously been practicing against it. Granted, Kentucky had an 11-yard run out of the Wildcat, but senior safety Justin Woodall snuffed out a play for a 7-yard loss.

10. Penalties: Alabama had six for 47 yards, the most damaging true freshman Dre Kirkpatrick's late hit on a punt return early in the second quarter. Junior left tackle James Carpenter was twice called for holding, but after getting a little help from redshirt freshman tight end Michael Williams for a few plays fared better as Alabama wore down Kentucky in the second half. On the flip side, senior long-snapper Brian Selman took a nasty hit from behind on a return with Kentucky's Matt Roark standing over him and taunting when Selman was obviously slow to get up. Officials called the illegal block, but not the taunting.


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