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October 1, 2009Although the final score indicated a blowout, the University of Alabama football team certainly took notice of Kentucky's game last week against defending national champion Florida.
The Wildcats (2-1 overall, 0-1 SEC) were limited to 179 yards and went 3-of-16 on third downs in a 41-7 home loss to the Gators after falling behind 31-0 in the first quarter. But what got the Crimson Tide's attention was the hit by defensive end Taylor Wyndham that sent former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to the hospital.
"I saw that lick they put on Tebow," sophomore center William Vlachos said. "I can't let that happen to Greg (McElroy)."
Meanwhile, No. 3 Alabama was bludgeoning Arkansas' offense, which had been averaging 44.5 points and 538.0 yards but manage just 254. Quarterback Ryan Mallett, the nation's most efficient passer, was 12-of-35 for 160 yards.
Between that and Alabama dominating the Kentucky series 34-2-1, Saturday appears to be a blowout on paper except the Crimson Tide appears to know better. Last year No. 2 Alabama scored two early touchdowns and then barely held on for a 17-14 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"That was a really physical game," Vlachos said. "I don't think our O-line played as well against Kentucky as it had previous games."
That fits in with Kentucky's modus operandi of close games and comebacks. The Wildcats have won 13 of their last 20 games by 10 or fewer points, and 10 of the last 22 with fourth-quarter comebacks.
So if anything Kentucky figures to be fired up.
"Very tough, good physical defense," McElroy said.
The big question is how Kentucky will react to the Florida loss, playing back-to-back top-five opponents for the first time in school history, with Coach Rich Brooks saying the Tide is just as good as the Gators but in a different way.
"They're extremely physical," Brooks said during his Monday press conference. "They have very similar team speed on defense to Florida, which is scary. They appear to be a more physical group, bigger, thicker. They may not be quite as tall but they are stronger and more physical. Their linebackers, they don't come up and play a block and then shed it, they just run through it and go to the ball carrier and leave the blocker lying at their feet. They just run through them. Their secondary is extremely well-disciplined."
When Kentucky runs This is the first time Alabama will face a two-back offense, with standout fullback John Conner leading the way. Kentucky has two primary ball carriers with Derrick Locke, who leads the SEC in all-purpose yards but is averaging just 56.3 rushing yards per game, and senior Alfonso Smith.
Kentucky does run a form of the Wildcat formation, six plays for 42 yards this season. The experienced offensive line is led by Zipp Duncan, who has 29 career starts and made the offseason switch from guard to left tackle.
However, right tackle Justin Jeffries has been limited by a strained Achilles and junior center Marcus Davis is out with an ankle injury.
Alabama's defense ranks second nationally against the run (47.2 yards), but will be without standout linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) for the first time.
"I got to play a little against him last year," guard Stuart Hines said about nose tackle Terrence Cody. "He is a big body in there, he's strong, he's good and he's quick for his size. A lot of teams have big guys, but they aren't as big as he is. We have to work this week to get a push in the middle."
When Kentucky passes
Quarterback Mike Hartline is 8-4 as a starter and has completed 51 of 82 passes (62.2) for 485 yards and four touchdowns in three games this season. His longest completion is just 34 yards and against Florida he completed just 13 of 28 passes for 85 yards with two interceptions.
He has two primary targets. Randall Cobb, who is no longer filling in occasionally at quarterback, is averaging six receptions per game, with Chris Matthews right behind him at 4.3. Overall, the Wildcats average 5.7 yards per pass attempt, which is 11th in the league ahead of only Vanderbilt.
If Kentucky has been good at one thing it's preventing sacks. The Wildcats yielded just 13 last season and have allowed just three so far this season, but Arkansas had a comparable number last week before the Tide had three sacks, eight tackles for a loss, eight pressures and eight broken-up passes.
"It's safe to say that the momentum is building, but I think it's excitement more than anything," senior cornerback Javier Areanas said. "When you hold down a high-powered offense, it lets you know, like I said before, it lets you know a lot about yourself. I think there is a lot of room for improvement, as it is always, but it did let us know where we're at, and what we're capable of. It's not a sign of relaxing and chilling out because we're good. It's time to realize how good we could be and let's get to that level. Let's minus the mistakes and get to where we should be."
When Alabama runs
Run-blocking has been a priority this week after Alabama struggled some against Arkansas, averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but just 2.05 without true freshman running back Trent Richardson's 52-yard touchdown.
"I don't think we blocked as well as we should have," senior tackle Drew Davis said. "Our passing game improved from the week before, but I think we could improve on the run block.
"We made the corrections on the game." If so, this could be a huge mismatch in Alabama's favor. The Crimson Tide averages 234.2 rushing yards per game, while Kentucky is last in the SEC in rushing defense, having allowed 185.7 yards. Last year, Glen Coffee torched the Wildcats for 218 yards.
Linebacker Micah Johnson leads the defense with 25 tackles, which ranks fifth in the SEC, but has been limited in practice this week due to a painful turf toe. Senior defensive tackle Corey Peters is the lone returning starter on the line, with 107 career tackles including 17.5 for a loss and eight sacks.
When Alabama passes
Last year, Alabama completed just seven passes for 106 yards against Kentucky, with Julio Jones leading the team with 52 yards on three receptions.
The player to keep an eye on is cornerback Trevard Lindley, who has 10 career interceptions and most have been at key times. He has one pickoff this season and leads the Wildcats with four passes broken up.
"They have some big, physical receivers that are really good," Lindley said. "It should be a good matchup. It should be a good game out there. With the small guys, you have to really move your feet and get your hands on them. With a big receiver you have to bull-rush you. You have to get off and try to keep them in front of you. You have to be more physical with them then you are with the smaller receivers."
Meanwhile, cornerback Paul Warford has been slowed by a quadriceps strain and was held out of practices.
Kentucky is plus-19 in turnover ratio since 2006, and will need some Saturday to have a chance. Senior strong safety Calvin Harrison led the Wildcats with 11 tackles last week against Florida, and the defense has seven sacks so far.
Kentucky ranks 12th nationally in kickoff returns with a 29.5 average, and Locke second in the SEC at 34.1. He recently set the school's single-game record with four returns for 191 yards against Louisville. The 6-foot-6 Matt Roark deflected three kicks lasts season. Alabama has an edge in punting and punt returns, with Arenas leading the SEC with his 19.0 average.