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UK looking to put pieces together on Homecoming

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UK will host Alabama State for Homecoming at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will host Alabama State for Homecoming at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops sees signs.

Whether it's an impressive defensive stop or a methodical drive, he can't miss the progress Kentucky has made seven games into the season. With each passing week -- save for a blip against Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team -- UK gets closer to putting together a total team effort, but wins continue to elude the Wildcats.

"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations."

Looking at the offensive side of the ball alone, Neal Brown sees the same thing.

"You know, I think we've had bits and pieces of success along the way," Brown said. "We just haven't been able to sustain it. That's the thing that's been frustrating is, we've done some really good things."

With a reprieve from the SEC grind awaiting them on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET for Homecoming vs. Alabama State (CSS), the Cats are looking to string together four quarters of "really good things." More importantly, they're looking to string together four quarters that will end in a victory.

"We gotta take advantage of each one that we can get," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So this week the focus is like it has been all year: come out and try to get a win."

The Cats knew as soon as the schedule came out that the five-game stretch they just wrapped up would be tough, and it proved to be just that. UK went winless against Louisville and four conference foes, so the Cats are without a victory since Miami (Ohio) came to town on Sept. 7.

UK, however, has been consistently competitive. Only against Alabama were the Cats completely out of contention in the second half and UK's last two road games against South Carolina and Mississippi State came down to the final possession.

"I think if you've noticed us as a program each week, no matter who we're playing, I think we gave ourselves a real chance to go out there and compete and win that game, and that's what we're looking for," Stoops said. "The preparation, the effort, and go out and play and give yourself a chance to win.  We're never going to concede anything."

Nor will Alabama State concede anything.

The Hornets, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, are winners of six straight. They have scored at least 31 points each of those victories and figure to come to Lexington confident and ready to play.

"They should be feeling good about themselves," Stoops said.

On offense, Alabama State averages 261.8 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per carry. The Hornets have two runners with at least 740 yards through eight games and a sound passing offense to go with them.

"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well. But again, they've got great balance."

For all that balance, running back Isaiah Crowell still sticks out. The junior ran for 850 yards as a freshman at Georgia in 2011 before transferring to Alabama State. In less than two full seasons there, he has 27 touchdowns.

"They do have some talented guys," Williamson said. "Isaiah Crowell, he's a real good running back. He was there my sophomore year at Georgia, so I remember him. But he's a real good player so really gotta tackle him well. He's fast and he's a good kid."

Defensively, Alabama State is defined by its aggressiveness. The Hornets have 80 tackles for loss and 38 sacks by 16 different players.

"They will zero blitz probably more than a lot of people we play, so we've got to be prepared for that," Brown said. "The quarterbacks have got to be ready to get the ball out of their hands."

Sophomore Jalen Whitlow will get the call at quarterback on Saturday after being limited to second-half spot duty last week with an ankle injury. He added the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder to his list of ailing body parts against Mississippi State, but will play.

"It will just be trying to play through pain," Whitlow said. "It hurts. I'm not going to lie. It hurts a little bit. But I'm just going to try to play through it."

Whitlow was one of a handful of Cats who did just that last week. Bud Dupree, coping with a strained pectoral muscle, was the headliner after he tallied 13 tackles and a sack while playing through pain.

"Everyone appreciates it when you go out there and play," Dupree said. "Guys with casts on, everyone appreciates those guys too. Guys playing through nicks and bruises, it just means a lot to the team and to the coaches that they know you're going out there and playing for them and not just only for yourself."

Stoops started this week by talking extensively about the toughness it takes to play through the bumps inevitable during the course of a college football season. With yet another chance at a win ahead this weekend, he wants his team to take another step ahead in that area, as well as others.

"I think we're learning as we go and getting tougher and getting tougher mentally, and we need to keep on progressing," Stoops said.

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