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By Ethan Levine
On a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Lexington, the UK football team was unable to end its September woes with an October shocker over the No. 20 Mississippi State Bulldogs. MSU, the Cats’ third ranked opponent in three weeks, grabbed an early 14-0 lead and never looked back on its way to defeating UK 27-14.
UK had chances throughout the game, but in the end, the team was unable to overcome its two greatest obstacles: immaturity and injuries.
With quarterback Maxwell Smith recovering from an ankle injury, UK implemented its all-freshman, two-quarterback offense for the first time all season. The Cats split their quarterbacking duties between true freshman Jalen Whitlow and fellow true freshman Patrick Towles, UK’s top recruit at the quarterback position.
Whitlow, who played almost the entire game a week ago against South Carolina, took the field first, but in two first-quarter drives managed to complete just 1-3 passing for 2 yards, failing to pick up a first down.
With time winding down in the first quarter, and UK already sitting in a 14-point hole, Phillips switched Whitlow out for Towles, and the freshman’s highly anticipated debut had arrived.
And it was worth the wait. Towles completed all five of his passes on his first drive, including a 32-yard strike to senior wide receiver La’Rod King for UK’s first touchdown of the afternoon, pulling the Cats within a touchdown of the Bulldogs.
“I loved it,” Towles said after the game. “I loved every minute of it. It’s what you dream about when you grow up and having it come to fruition was awesome.”
Towles would finish the game 5-6 passing for 71 yards and a touchdown in two series of action. On the freshman’s third series of the game, Towles was sacked by the Mississippi State defense and rolled his ankle, an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the game.
“We will look at (Towles’s ankle) tomorrow, but today he couldn’t get up on his toes, and it’s unfortunate,” Phillips said of Towles’ injury just minutes into his playing career.
Once again, it was Whitlow who took over after the injury, much like he did a week ago when Smith went down with a similar ankle injury.
“I knew we were going to rotate, but I didn’t know how much,” Whitlow said. “I just had to be ready to play at all times.”
Whitlow finished the game 10-23 passing for 73 yards, just two more than Towles threw for in his brief time on the field. Whitlow made up for UK’s lackluster passing attack with his legs, running eight times for 39 yards and UK’s second touchdown of the afternoon.
The two freshmen quarterbacks each created a touchdown for the offense, and, more importantly, neither committed a turnover.
UK’s defense got a wake-up call from the MSU offense in the first quarter, allowing the Bulldogs to rack up insane amounts of yards both through the air and on the ground. After one quarter, MSU had 96 yards passing and 76 yards rushing, and the balance was tearing the defense apart.
The Cats’ defense had as many as five true freshmen on the field at times throughout the game, and as a unit the defense was slow to get going against the Bulldogs.
But following MSU’s explosive first quarter, the immature Cats defense began to mature. UK allowed just 13 points in the final three quarters, and just seven points in the second half, as UK tried to climb out of its hole with Whitlow at the helm of the offense.
“We played solid,” middle linebacker Avery Williamson said. “It was a few touchdowns that we wish we could’ve taken back. We have to keep improving.”
UK certainly had its chances in the second half. Following Whitlow’s touchdown run, UK’s Joe Mansour surprised all of Commonwealth Stadium with an onside kick that the Cats recovered. Having just cut the lead to 27-14, UK hoped to ride the surge of momentum into points on its bonus possession, propelling the Cats back into striking distance.
Instead, UK was forced to punt after picking up just one first down, and the opportunity was wasted.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the score still 27-14, UK safety Mikie Benton popped MSU wide receiver Chris Smith and forced a fumble in UK territory that UK would recover. Not only had the Cats prevented the Bulldogs from extending their lead, but UK once more had momentum on its side and a chance to punch in a score that would make it a game again.
Instead, once again, the offense would be forced off the field after just one first down, dropping the proverbial nail in the coffin of this game.
“It can be a little frustrating because we have to keep getting used to somebody, but we are all going to stay on each other’s side,” sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson said. “Whoever is playing we are going to work hard to get it right.”
It was injuries and inexperience that killed the Cats again.
Exactly halfway through the season, UK already has played 22 freshmen, including 14 true freshmen who were playing in high school just one year ago, including two of its quarterbacks.
This inexperienced lineup is the result of, to some extent, UK’s chronic injury problems up and down the roster.
The Cats have seen both Smith and Towles go down in consecutive weeks with ankle injuries. Against Mississippi State, two more UK safeties went down with injuries as well in Martavius Neloms (hamstring) and Ashley Lowery (head), allowing yet another true freshman to make his season debut on the defense: Daron Blaylock. The hits have come from all over, but Phillips remains confident in his team’s young depth and ability to overcome the injury problems.
“I’ve been through (injury troubles) before,” Phillips said. “It does help depth down the road because you have to play so many people, someone has to step up, and our saying is the next guy out.
“I thought our guys competed hard and gave ourselves a glimmer of hope in the second half,” Phillips said.
Whoever is able to suit up for the Cats will be making the trip to Fayetteville, Ark., for UK’s next game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. The game will be UK’s first road game in three weeks, and UK’s first non-ranked opponent in four weeks. Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST.