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Cats closing book on Alabama loss, moving on to season's second half

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Maxwell Smith completed 7-of-16 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in UK's 48-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith completed 7-of-16 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in UK's 48-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the first time all season, Mark Stoops stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference dissatisfied with his team's effort.

The execution had not always been there, but Stoops had not found himself questioning his team's fight until after Kentucky fell to Alabama, 48-7. Of course, a lot of that had to do with facing a team that has won three of the last four national championships.

"Disappointing night," Stoops said. "I thought we'd compete a little bit harder than that, but give credit to them. Like I said, that's the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason. I was really impressed with them, just like you watch them on tape."

Even as UK played its way to a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter, Stoops felt like his team was overmatched. The Wildcats forced a pair of Alabama fumbles with the Crimson Tide driving into the red zone, but UK was unable to capitalize.

"They drove it down there, and we'd get the turnover, and they kept us back there, playing great defense," Stoops said. "Even though we got a couple of turnovers, we were still behind the eight ball most of the night and chasing it. It was an uphill climb."

The statistics show just how uphill the climb was. UK (1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) was outgained 668-170, its offense hurt by a sprained ankle suffered by Jalen Whitlow. Maxwell Smith stepped in at quarterback, but was unable to find a rhythm. Smith prepared as well as he could in a backup role in case his number was called, but he faced a tall order.

"It hurt in a sense that Jalen, we gave him a bunch of reps," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We gave him the starter's reps this week and Maxwell didn't get as many as he had been. And then we had a lot of quarterback run game in the game plan, so it took us a couple series to get a plan together because we were going to use the quarterback run game and use some of that as a decoy also."

Between facing a team loaded with future professionals and injuries to a number of key players, UK could make all kinds of excuses. Stoops, however, isn't interested.

"We've got to hold ourselves to a higher standard," Stoops said. "We've got to coach better. We've got to play better. That's not acceptable no matter who we're playing.  We know how good Alabama is, but we could do some things better."

Brown feels the same way.

"Our production is unacceptable," Brown said. "Obviously not used to it. We will use this bye week and we will be significantly better."

After an "unacceptable" performance, pursuing improvement is the only rational response.

With a brutal four-game stretch against top-20 teams now in the rearview mirror, UK is halfway through the 2013 season. The Cats have 12 days to prepare for a Thursday-night trip to Mississippi State and take inventory of the progress they've made to this point, which is far from negligible.

Save for a third-quarter touchdown drive -- the first allowed by Alabama in nearly a month -- positives from Saturday night are hard to come by, but that's not the case for the other five games from the first half of the season. The Cats went toe to toe with some of the nation's best teams and refused to back down.

"We got half the season left, so I think you look at it and say, 'Hey, here's what we did. Here's where we're at. Our record's obviously not where we want, but here's where we're at. This is where we have improvement,' " Brown said. "And trust me, we have drastic improvement that needs to be made. And then you treat it like a new season from here on out."

Stoops and Brown may have coached together for less than a season, but you wouldn't know it from the way they echo one another.

"We'll clean up our mistakes, and we will compete for the second half of this season," Stoops said. "I expect our players to bounce back and prepare the right way and play hard."

The record being what it is, concern over the Cats' ability to remain tuned in is reasonable, but UK's senior leader isn't worried.

"I feel like these games are winnable and we can still become bowl eligible," said Avery Williamson, who had a game-high 13 tackles. "We gotta win five games to be bowl eligible and we just gotta really grind and dig and try to get some wins."

For both UK's mental and physical health, the timing of the bye week could be ideal. Injured players have extra time to heal and coaches can hone in on making sure players' psyches are where they need to be.

"We have this bye week like we have been talking about," Smith said. "Guys will get healthy, we are going to keep practicing and keep getting better. Those guys are going to get healthy. We are going to be all right. We are going to come through this thing."

Williamson knows the message he'll be delivering.

"You've just gotta tell yourself that we can win," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "That's the biggest thing. You've gotta tell yourself that we can win. And you can't focus on the negative. We just gotta move on from it."

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