Jalen Whitlow's first-quarter fumble was the first of several Kentucky mistakes in UK's 27-13 loss to Louisville Saturday.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – If Mark Stoops were Joker Phillips and this was year three instead of year one, the story of Kentucky's 27-13 loss to Louisville Saturday would begin this way:
Too many mistakes. Too many dropped passes. Three turnovers. Boooo. Not enough resistance or persistence in the second half. A blown opportunity to topple a Top 10 team. Booooo.
But Stoops is not Phillips. This isn't year three. It's year one. So you move the mistakes, dropped passes and second-half meltdown to the end of the story.
And you say this: Kentucky showed some solid things. Visible improvement from the opening week loss to Western Kentucky, especially on defense. More toughness and tenacity across the defensive front.
No quit, even after falling behind 21 points in the fourth quarter. The ability to hang nearly 400 yards on the Louisville defense, even while the Wildcats failed to complete 50 percent of their passes. Some intriguing new faces, especially from the freshman class. Hope.
"I thought we actually had it, but mistakes just shot us in the foot," said Jojo Kemp, one of those UK freshmen.
"Overall, defensively I think we played well," said Cody Quinn, a sophomore defensive back. "It's just a four-quarter game. If you want to put that as the headline, it's a four-quarter game."
It was a loss, the Wildcats' third consecutive loss in this series. They're now 1-2. But there wasn't much to groan about considering this is a new regime trying to change the arc of Kentucky football. That's a three-year job, not a three-game job.
"Until we start making the routine plays, we're going to have a hard time beating Top 10 teams," Stoops said. "I'm disappointed with the loss. We had our opportunities and we didn't make the plays when we needed to."
That's what Stoops said, and I'm certain that is what Stoops believes. You don't build a winning program by embracing defeat or majoring in rationalization.
But think big picture. Kentucky improved, on defense more than on offense.
Louisville has an offense that expects to put jumbo numbers on the world. The Cards generated 492 yards but failed to put jumbo numbers on the scoreboard. That is because of the way Kentucky started the game on defense.
Six possessions. Four punts. A fumble. A field goal. That's it. Blah. This was a 3-3 game after more than 27 minutes. That is closer than the world expected the Wildcats to be after 27 seconds.
Remember these three names – Jason Hatcher, Jojo Kemp and Cody Quinn, who played for the first time this season..
Hatcher, you know. He was a formidable contributor to the last three state championships that Trinity won. Hatcher was bound for Southern California until Kentucky replaced Phillips with Stoops. Hatcher is already playing and contributing.
He made four tackles as Stoops used him at defensive end and linebacker. You knew Jason Hatcher was out there.
"We love Jason," Stoops said. "He's going to be a very good player."
Quinn was one of the defensive backs who was not embarrassed by U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He broke up a pass. He looked across the line of scrimmage and saw Bridgewater scrambling.
"I think he rattled maybe a little bit," Quinn said. "He kind of pushed his tight end (Zeke Pike) up to the line because we had them flustered a little bit. We should have kept that up, kept that intensity up."
That's defense. Kemp is the name to remember on offense. He only ran the ball five times but Kemp gave the Wildcats 80 yards. Stoops loved the burst that he saw from Kemp. He loved it enough that he said that Kemp will carry the football more than five times the next time Kentucky plays, which will be Sept. 28 when Florida visits.
"Jojo's got to get some more time," Stoops said.
"Then I guess they've got to get me the ball more," Kemp said, with a laugh.
The Wildcats, obviously, need even more young and exciting pieces. Kentucky's passing game is not SEC-ready. The Wildcats dropped too many passes against Louisville. Some counted six drops. Other said seven or eight. It doesn't matter. It was too many.
The drops explain why Kentucky completed only 17 of 37 throws for 214 yards. Maxwell Smith started and played most of the game. He exited in the third quarter with a tender right shoulder. It's the third consecutive season Smith has been injured. It's tough to depend on a quarterback who cannot stay on the field.
Jalen Whitlow replaced him. Passing is not the strength of his game. Whitlow had a bad fumble in the first quarter that led to Louisville's first field goal. He also had an unnecessary interception.
"He made some critical errors," Stoops said. "We've got to get that corrected. We've got to play better around him as well."
Kentucky has two weeks to regroup. Then Florida visits. Followed by a trip to South Carolina. Then a visit by Nick Saban University – Alabama, the best college football team on the planet.
There's nothing forgiving in that stretch, even for a first-year coach. Nobody knows that better than Stoops. But eventually there are some beatable teams -- Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Tennessee. None of those three looked overwhelming Saturday.
"We're going to hit the reality of the situation head on," Stoops said. "We need to learn to make plays."