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Whitlow responds to challenge, leads Cats past Alabama State

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Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory over Alabama State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory over Alabama State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jalen Whitlow spent all week preparing to play through pain, but he practiced hoping the adrenaline of game day would cast out any thoughts of his bumps and bruises.

Two plays into Kentucky's Homecoming matchup with Alabama State, Whitlow got his wish.

Rolling to his right, Whitlow saw the first receiver in his read progression was well covered. With open field ahead, he tucked and ran. Eighty-eight yards and a touchdown later, he had the second-longest run in school history and longest ever in Commonwealth Stadium.

All of a sudden, his ailing ankle and shoulder were the last things on his mind.

"It's like magic," Whitlow said. "You don't even think about it anymore."

Whitlow's longest personal run "since little league" staked UK to a 7-0 lead and set the tone for a dominating 48-14 victory. The Wildcats (2-6, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) took down Alabama State for their first win since Sept. 7, touching off a locker-room celebration almost two months in the making.

"It's good to get that victory," Mark Stoops said. "It's been a while. So any time you get a win, you have to appreciate it. And our players have worked hard and we've been fighting and clawing and scratching trying to get a win, so it was good to get a victory tonight."

Whitlow played a leading role well past that second play from scrimmage.

Stoops challenged the sophomore early in the week, saying his team needed him to step up and grab hold of the quarterback position even though he's far from completely healthy. In doing just that, Whitlow showed why his coaches see him as the signal caller who gives the Cats their best chance to win.

"I thought he stepped up and accepted that and wanted to go out there and play the whole game if need be," Stoops said. "I felt like he pulled it down and ran around and created and made some plays when we needed him, so that was good to see."

Even though Whitlow was called on to run much less frequently as UK's lead ballooned to as large as 48-7 in the third quarter, he ran for a career-high 111 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said it was the best he had looked in the ground game, but Whitlow was solid as a passer as well.

He completed 15-of-25 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Whitlow was particularly effective on downfield throws, including a 38-yard strike to Steven Borden for UK's final touchdown of the evening.

Now, his coaches will look for Whitlow to improve in his mental game.

"His reads and his progressions and there were some things out there and some plays out there, and they were in his progression," Stoops said. "Those are things we have to get better at. That's why we're not throwing the ball as well as we can right now."

UK was also limited in the passing game by three injuries to key receivers.

The first came in warm-ups. Javess Blue throwing a ball around with teammates, as is custom, took an errant pass in the eye. It swelled immediately, rendering UK's leading receiver unable to see out of it.

"Then I popped him in the other eye; he couldn't see out of that one," Stoops joked. "So he had two black eyes."

Alexander Montgomery was the next to go down, and it happened in equally unconventional fashion. After he caught a six-yard touchdown pass, the freshman jumped to celebrate with two teammates. He was knocked off balance, landed awkwardly and went to the ground clutching his left knee.

"Hopefully, it's not serious, but I'm afraid it may be because he's been solid all year and getting better for a young guy," Stoops said. "To get that touchdown, we've got to learn to celebrate better."

Ryan Timmons -- after returning from an earlier shoulder injury -- sustained a sprained ankle on one of the final plays his coaches planned to use him.

Outside of severely limiting UK's depth at receiver, the rash of injuries would seem to pose a danger to the psyche of a very young group. Brown was happy to see the wide outs soldier on.

"That probably would affect that receiver group a little bit," Brown said. "When Javess gets hurt in the pregame and then Alex goes out early, those guys are kind of like, 'What's next?' But you gotta move on, next man up, take advantage of the opportunities."

Demarco Robinson certainly fit that bill on Saturday night.

The junior has been limited due to injury for much of the season, but has returned to a featured role as a receiver/punt returner. Against Alabama State, three of his four catches came on conversions of third or fourth downs and he was in the right place on two loose balls.

He scored UK's second touchdown after Raymond Sanders fumbled the ball in the end zone, pouncing when it appeared the Hornets may seize the momentum in a tie game. Later, he recovered a punt that bounced off the back Josh Forrest and ran for 18 yards.

Robinson, however, is more concerned with what the win will mean for his team's confidence.

"I think it feels good," Robinson said. "A lot of guys should have their confidence up. A lot of people played well tonight. We're just going to come into Missouri trying to do the same thing."

Characteristically, Stoops is already thinking about what UK must do to improve with the Tigers -- yet another top-10 opponent -- set to come to Lexington next Saturday at noon ET.

"Still have a lot of work to do," Stoops said. "We all know that and can see that, but I was pretty pleased with their effort and preparation and going out there and taking care of business."

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