UK’s defense, quarterback play falters in 35-26 loss to WKU



By Nick Gray | Sports Editor

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NASHVILLE — Coming into the season opener, UK head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown kept the public in the dark about naming the starting quarterback, leaving doubt in the minds of fans who were expecting marked improvement from last season.

Saturday, the doubt remained.

The Cats struggled passing the ball in the first three quarters with sophomore starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow, and fell to Western Kentucky University 35-26 in front of 47,623 fans at LP Field in Nashville.

“Offensively, we did some good things at some times. We didn’t play good as a team,” Stoops said. “Early on, when we got some turnovers and when we needed to control the football and move it, we didn’t do that.”

The starting quarterback play was not the only area in which the Cats struggled. WKU built a double-digit lead in the first half and gained 466 yards of total offense against the UK defense and first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

“I thought we played better than that (in the spring and in fall practice),” Stoops said. “(WKU) controlled us at the line of scrimmage, created some good run plays with some different looks. We looked out of place. Simple things, like leverage on the football, I thought were very poor.”

Offensively, Whitlow started the game for the Cats and finished 10-for-15 passing with 78 yards while rushing for 77 yards on six carries. Brown said Whitlow got the start due to his play in spring and fall practice.

Whitlow was pulled in the fourth quarter for sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, with the Hilltoppers up 35-17.

Smith led two scoring drives in the final 13:32 of the game, including an 11-play, 62-yard drive that resulted in senior kicker Joe Mansour booting a 30-yard field goal and slicing the deficit to 15.

The Cats would get the ball back with 6:42 left, but freshman receiver Ryan Timmons fumbled the ball on the first play of the drive after a 33-yard rush.

Still, Smith threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Demarco Robinson with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter that was originally called an incomplete pass but was overruled by the replay official.

Mansour hit the extra point attempt off the left upright, however, and the score remained a two-possession game at 35-26.

Smith was 8-for-13 with 125 yards passing and a touchdown in his quarter of play.

The Hilltoppers opened the scoring on the initial drive of the game, a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by a three-yard touchdown run by WKU senior running back Keshawn Simpson.

UK senior linebacker Avery Williamson recovered a fumble by WKU senior running back Antonio Andrews on the WKU 41-yard-line. The Cats drove to the WKU 5-yard-line before Mansour kicked a 23-yard field goal.

WKU pushed the lead to 14-3 when Andrews scored from three yards out, two plays into the second quarter.

The Cats cut the lead to 14-10 after a 59-yard run by UK senior running back Raymond Sanders set up Whitlow’s 19-yard touchdown run.

But the Hilltoppers countered with a three-yard touchdown run by Simpson to push the lead to 21-10 in the middle of the second quarter.

“I wanted to see more excitement out of our team (in the first quarter),” Stoops said. “Normally you try to calm a guy down a little bit before games or before scrimmages, and there’s a fine line there. I don’t want it to be fake; I want it to be real.”

UK senior running back Jonathan George scored on a five-yard rush with 3:55 left in the second quarter to make the score 21-17 in favor of WKU, and the Cats were within four points of the lead at halftime.

Whitlow was 5-for-7 for 62 yards, and the UK offense held the ball for 12:21 of the quarter. But the Cats failed to score, and the Hilltoppers would capitalize.

With 1:53 left in the third quarter, WKU junior tight end Mitchell Henry caught a nine-yard touchdown from junior quarterback Brandon Doughty to push the lead to 28-17. After a UK punt, WKU sophomore running back Leon Allen added the fourth rushing touchdown of the night for the Hilltoppers from 14 yards out to give WKU the 35-17 lead.

Sophomore cornerback Cody Quinn, who had been listed as a starting cornerback, did not make the trip to Nashville, staying behind with an ankle sprain. Junior cornerback Nate Willis replaced Quinn in the starting lineup but left the game in the second half and was seen walking back to the locker room on crutches. There was no official word on Willis’s condition as of late Saturday night.

Neither Stoops nor Brown said who would be the starting quarterback next Saturday against Miami (Ohio) in the home opener.  Both, especially Stoops, were looking forward to getting better this week in preparation for the RedHawks.

“We are all disappointed. We all need to do a better job,” Stoops said.

“But if we would have won this game, we would go back to work tomorrow the same way. Win or lose, you have to go back, regroup, put a good game plan together, put the work in and get better.”