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With injuries mounting, Cats fall to Mississippi State

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In just three drives leading UK's offense, Patrick Towles completed 5-of-6 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. (Chet White, UK Athletics) In just three drives leading UK's offense, Patrick Towles completed 5-of-6 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Patrick Towles is shouldering a level of expectations that is difficult to understand. The instate product has been cast as the future of the quarterback position at Kentucky ever since he committed. On Saturday, he got his first chance to show what he could do.

Splitting time with fellow true freshman Jalen Whitlow, Towles took the field for the first time in Commonwealth Stadium in UK's third series against Mississippi State. With his team down two scores through just one quarter, Towles led the Cats on a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, completing all five of his passes for 71 yards.

"I loved it," Towles said. "I loved every bit of it. It's what you dream about when you're growing up. For it to be coming to fruition was awesome."

Having cut the Bulldogs' lead to 14-7, the Cats suddenly had hope. Coaches and teammates raved about Towles' precocious confidence, but it was something different to see it in a Southeastern Conference game. It was on display throughout the drive, but especially when he stood in the pocket with defenders bearing down on him and delivered a 32-yard scoring strike to La'Rod King.

"(Towles) stood in there on the touchdown pass and took one on the lips, which is sort of what big-time quarterbacks should do, and he looked good doing it," head coach Joker Phillips said.

There is perhaps no clearer symbol of how UK's season has gone to this point than what happened next.

Just two drives later, Towles stepped back to throw, hesitated and was wrapped up by defensive end Denico Autry. After initially trying to stay upright, Towles was sacked, spraining his left ankle in the process.

"I told him all week if he didn't make good decisions and get the ball out of his hands, he might get his leg broke," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

It didn't prove to be as severe as the broken leg Sanders foretold, but the injury was bad enough to knock him out for the game. Without Towles at quarterback, the Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC) never regained an offensive rhythm and No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0 SEC) would go on to a 27-14 victory, extending UK's losing streak to four games.

During the preseason and the opening weeks of 2012, Phillips marveled repeatedly at the health of his team. Less than a month later, the Cats have been besieged by injury. Towles, Martavius Neloms (hamstring) and Ashely Lowery (head) were added to the list of Wildcat wounded on Saturday and, with Towles and defensive back Zack Blaylock playing for the first time, Kentucky has now played 14 true freshmen this season.

Phillips refuses to call his team snakebit, but his top offensive assistant isn't so sure.

"You start wondering a little bit," Sanders said. "We keep getting banged up and right now I got one healthy guy (at quarterback). We got to get him better and we got to go play well."

Whitlow is the player to whom Sanders is referring. UK failed to register a first down in Whitlow's first three drives at quarterback and he finished with 10 completions in 21 attempts for 73 yards. He rushed for 26 yards, but was sacked twice.

"I'm going to answer this nicely," Sanders said when asked about Whitlow's play. "It wasn't close to what I expected or what we needed."

Whitlow didn't commit a turnover - which is somewhat of a marvel for a true freshman making his first start - but he wasn't able to throw the ball consistently enough to penalize the Bulldogs for their focus on the UK ground game. Running backs Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George combined for 53 yards on 23 carries (2.3 yards per attempt) against consistently heavy defensive fronts.

"We've been thrust into playing a completely different way and relying on the running game as much as we're forced to right now is not what our linemen have practiced, it's not what our backs have practiced, it's not what anybody's practiced," Sanders said. "In some ways, it's like starting over and it looked like we started over today."

He knows he has work to do in reading defenses and balancing scrambling versus staying in the pocket, but Whitlow also simply felt like he was off.

"Just some days, it feels like you don't have it," Whitlow said. "It was one of those days for me. I wasn't in my rhythm."

In spite of an inconsistent offense, the Cats managed to stay within striking range of their third undefeated and ranked opponent in as many weeks. The Bulldogs racked up 278 yards and 20 points in the first half, but the resilient Kentucky defense did not give in, limiting MSU to 149 yards and seven points after halftime.

"I couldn't be more happy and proud for our kids that they battled their tails off," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "They played hard. They're trying hard the best they can. We're dropping like flies, but that's part of football. Unfortunately, it's a little bit more than our share right now."

It was with defensive backs Neloms and Lowery on the sideline in street clothes that the defense played much better. UK had just six healthy defensive backs and that group included five true freshmen: Zack and Daron Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller.

With that patchwork group patrolling the secondary against a Bulldog team that attempted 39 passes, there was even a moment in the second half where it seemed a comeback was afoot.

The defense put the offense in good field position after a three-and-out and a 16-yard punt by Baker Swedenburg. The Cats cashed in, putting together a seven-play, 46-yard drive, culminating in a three-yard touchdown run by Whitlow. With his team down just 27-14, Phillips dialed up an onside kick, which Joe Mansour executed to perfection and Avery Williamson recovered. But with favorable field position once more, the offense managed nothing more than a solitary first down.

"(UK) Had a chance late after receiving the onside kick with about 7 minutes," Phillips said. "We felt we could get the onside kick, go down, score, be down six and just couldn't convert it."

UK would cross midfield just once more the rest of the game, never seriously threatening to cut the 13-point deficit.

The Cats' attentions now shift to Arkansas team that just ended a four-game losing streak of its own with a 24-7 win over Auburn. Towles, along with many of his teammates, will undergo further tests in hoping to play as UK hits the road next weekend.

"I've never seen it quite this way," Minter said. "But you knew, just like life, there's going to be adverse situations and we've had our share. If turnabout is fair play and the breaks equal out someday, maybe we're in for some great days down the road."

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