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Balance makes facing Tigers a tall task

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Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a day of watching film, Mark Stoops publicly kicks off game week at his Monday press conference.

There, he begins his question-answer-session with the media with some comments reflecting on Kentucky's last game before talking in general about his team's upcoming opponent.

He always has good things to say, but he was uniquely effusive in his praise of Missouri.

"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."

As Stoops' words suggest, what differentiates eighth-ranked Missouri (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is its strength in all facets of the game. The Tigers control of their own destiny in the SEC East and are an overtime loss away from an unbeaten record not because of smoke and mirrors, but because they are sound across the board.

On offense, Missouri's receiving corps is what stands out, and quite literally. The Tigers top three receivers are Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and the trio has combined for 1,681 yards receiving. They also look they should be in town to play in Rupp Arena instead of Commonwealth Stadium, standing 6-foot-5, 6-4 and 6-6, respectively.

"I can't remember playing a group bigger than this," said Stoops, whose career began as a secondary coach.

Safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto took it a step further, calling the Tigers "as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached again." None of the five Wildcats listed on UK's depth chart at cornerback is taller than 6-0, but the group will have to find a way to match the physicality of the Tigers both in the passing game and in shedding blocks.

"You gotta eat your Wheaties and bring your A game," Peveto said.

The rest of the UK defense should load up before Saturday's noon ET kickoff (ESPNU) too, because Stoops sees an offense that's just as physical in the trenches.

"They run the ball on everybody," Stoops said. "And you see them really throwing guys around in the run game and creating big seams."

Missouri is averaging 237.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, numbers that have hardly suffered with athletic quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury the last three games. Franklin is slated for a possible return on Saturday, but the Cats won't alter their approach much whether they're facing him or backup Maty Mauk.

"They're both very good quarterbacks," Stoops said. "Their offense basically stays the same."

That cannot be said of the UK offense.

With Jalen Whitlow returning to a starting role after battling ankle and shoulder injuries, the Wildcat attack found another gear against Alabama State. With an added dimension in the running game and Whitlow's progression as a passer, the Cats look to sustain that offensive momentum.

"I thought Jalen did a nice job making some plays with his feet," Stoops said. "I thought he did a nice job throwing it at times. There were a few throws that stuck out to me during the game that we know he missed. But after watching the tape, really thought he did a good job of hitting some guys as well. Got to continue to work our passing game and improve in that area. But to score 48 points was good to see."

Duplicating that feat against Missouri won't be easy.

The Tigers are fourth in the league in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in turnovers forced by a wide margin. That all starts up front.

"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run. They have the fastest D-line that we've played and they play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."

Michael Sam headlines the group, leading the SEC with 10 sacks.

To combat that pass rush and avoid the interceptions that have so frequently befallen Missouri opponents (the Tigers have 17 picks on the season), UK will rely on a combination of Whitlow's athleticism, quick throws and a variety of protection schemes.

"We've got to get the ball out of our hands fast," Brown said. "I think he understands. I mean, we've got to do some things in our protection: We've got to get some backs, we've got to get some tight ends, do some things like that to help our guys out."

Once Whitlow gets rid of the ball, he'll be relying on his receivers to make plays. Unfortunately for the Cats, Whitlow will almost certainly be without two of his top targets -- Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery -- due to injury. That means UK's "next-man-up" mentality will be put to the test.

"I think Demarco Robinson is a guy that's finally healthy, and we need him to step up and make some plays," Brown said. "We need A.J. Legree to step up. Some of the guys that have been here, they've got to step up and produce."

Against Alabama State, Robinson showed some the play-making ability that excited his coaches throughout the spring and summer with four catches for 44 yards. As Brown mentioned, an ankle injury has limited his explosiveness but Robinson is now finally at full speed.

"I have to play a bigger role this week," Robinson said. "I have to make more plays than I've been making in the past. I feel like it's a bigger responsibility."

Responsibility, however, isn't the first thing Stoops wants his team feeling heading into the weekend. Facing a team as good as Missouri affords the Cats a chance to measure their continued improvement against elite competition, and he wants them to embrace that.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."

Head coach Mark Stoops

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown

Rain came to Lexington on Wednesday afternoon, but the Kentucky football team stayed outside for its third practice of the week.

Though the forecast is clear for UK's game on Saturday against Missouri, Mark Stoops is always happy to see how his team responds in less-than-ideal conditions.

"Sloppy day out there," Stoops said. "Messy day. So it was good to get some sloppy ball out there, so it was good to get some wet ball, some work in the rain. Got our work done and feel good about where we're at and our preparations and just moving forward."

It was a test for the passing game as Jalen Whitlow works with a receiving corps significantly hampered by injury. After productive work on the first days of the week, the Wildcats once again took step forward on Wednesday.

"I think we're getting better," Stoops said. "I thought Jalen had a very good day yesterday and seemed to have a good day today. Javess (Blue) is fresh. He looked good. Demarco (Robinson), (Jeff) Badet -- all those guys are getting better. We need to use our tight ends a little bit more and get them some balls."

Missouri, however, will present an even stiffer challenge than any weather. The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin and feature what offensive coordinator Neal Brown calls the fastest defensive line UK will have faced all season.

"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run."

Considering Missouri's talent on both sides of the ball, it stands to reason that the UK coaches would once again look to special teams for an edge. In Stoops and special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto's first season, Wildcat specialists have created a number of big plays -- including a punt block last week and a memorable fake field goal for a touchdown against Florida -- while also being solid overall.

"It tells me a lot about a team," Stoops said. "That's kind of the heart of your team. There's a lot of guys on there that are really doing a good job and being very unselfish, and I think Coach Peveto's done a great job of coaching them up."

Considering the plays UK has already called -- Stoops and Peveto work together to make such decisions -- on special teams, opponents are becoming aware of the Cats' reputation for special-teams trickery and adjusting.

"It's just like I said in some other games, we had some things called and they jump out into a safe look and took it away," Stoops said. "That can help you in some areas, but certainly they could catch you. If you try to run some sort of fake or a trick play, they could catch you and it could hurt you."

Don't expect UK to stop trying though. A former defensive coordinator, Stoops may seem buttoned-down and conservative, but he's not afraid to gamble -- as long as the odds are right.

"Some of that stuff isn't as low-percentage as you might think," Stoops said. "So if we feel that something's there and there's a different percentage of converting it, then I'm all for it."

UK off to good start in Missouri preparation

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Head coach Mark Stoops

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot

With another top-10 opponent coming to town, Mark Stoops understands the enormity of the task his team will face in Missouri.

That's what makes the good work Kentucky has done in its first two days of practice ahead of Saturday's game against the Tigers.

"We got a great challenge ahead of us this week," Stoops said. "Got off to a decent start here with a Monday and a Tuesday practice. We're facing a very good football team, so we don't have enough hours in the day and enough reps we can do in practice to prepare ourselves, but it was a good day overall, and looking forward to the challenge here this weekend."

UK's confidence was buoyed over the weekend as the Wildcats got back in the win column with a dominating performance against Alabama State. Stoops, however, quickly reminded his team that the effort was far from flawless and that improvement still needed to be made.

The Cats have embraced that attitude.

"They know," Stoops said. "Win or lose, we've got to get these things corrected. And that's what we're constantly trying to do, just get better as a program."

With that in mind, UK's offensive and defensive first teamers spent much of Tuesday's practice going head to head. The Wildcat defensive backs -- who will face the monumental task of defending Missouri receivers who collectively resemble a basketball team with their height and athleticism -- were primary beneficiaries of that work.

"We went a good dose of good against good with the offense today, so it was a good long practice, a lot of reps, and those guys, they're gonna get a good workout," Stoops said.

This week, the defensive backs are lining up opposite a UK receiving corps thinned significantly by injury. Alexander Montgomery is out for the season with a torn ACL, while Ryan Timmons is likely to miss Saturday's game due to a sprained ankle.

Timmons and Montgomery are UK's second-and third-leading pass catchers, combining for 43 catches, 432 and two touchdowns, so the Cats are looking for receivers to step up.

"Javess (Blue) is fresh with sitting out last week," Stoops said. "So Javess is good. Demarco's (Robinson) stepping up and continuing. A.J. (Legree), like I said, I think he's getting better and better. Those are three that are jumping out at me."

At least on Tuesday, the offense didn't suffer for Timmons and Montgomery's absence, as Jalen Whitlow seems to have taken a firm grasp of the quarterback position.

"He seems to be rolling along pretty good," Stoops said. "They were as sharp today going against us as I've seen them in a while, so that was good to see."

Live blog: Men's basketball vs. Montevallo

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It's getting to the point where Mark Stoops doesn't even have to look at the schedule.

For the fifth time in seven games, Kentucky will face a ranked opponent with No. 8 Missouri coming to Lexington. The grind of the Southeastern Conference has been unrelenting in Stoops' first season, but the Wildcats aren't growing weary of it.

In fact, it's why they're all here.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."

The fact that the Cats (2-6, 0-4 SEC) are eager for another chance to prove themselves doesn't make the challenge facing them any easier.

A season ago, the Tigers struggled to a 5-7 record in their first year as members of a new conference. Now much healthier, Missouri controls its own destiny in the SEC race and is a fourth-quarter South Carolina comeback away from a perfect record through nine games.

After a day of watching film on the Tigers, Stoops knows it's no fluke.

"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."

The Tigers rank fourth the SEC in scoring defense (20.6 points per game) and third in rushing defense (109.4 yards per game).

All of Missouri's wins have come by two touchdowns or more, so opponents have had to turn to the pass in an effort to overcome deficits. The Tigers have capitalized, intercepting a league-high 17 passes en route to a plus-15 turnover margin.

"I think they are active," Stoops said. "A lot of it has to do with their front four and a lot of it has to do with they're scoring a boatload of points. So any time you're scoring over 40 points a game, the teams have got to get desperate at times and start throwing the ball around."

Perhaps no team in the SEC is better equipped to deal with the Tigers in that area than UK. The Cats haven't committed a turnover in their last four games and have just six giveaways on the season.

"They have been very conscious of that," Stoops said. "I think we do a good job of coaching ball security.  The quarterbacks have done a nice job of protecting the ball. That's a big key."

Whitlow with plenty of room for improvement

The UK coaching staff has been waiting all season for a quarterback to step up and grab hold of the position. Injuries and inconsistency have prevented that from happening, at least until last weekend's win against Alabama State.

Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory, becoming the first Wildcat quarterback to run and pass for two touchdowns since 2004. Stoops, however, left the game thinking about a handful of throws the sophomore missed.

"He needs to get a feel, get better, get reps and playing time," Stoops said. "He did that. I thought he made some nice throws, but he just short-armed or guided it or tried to be too accurate and aim it. Whatever the reason, he just missed a few."

A few miscues are understandable, particularly given how green Whitlow still is as a thrower. He has made 12 collegiate starts now, but wasn't a full-time quarterback in high school. That's not always easy for a demanding coach like Stoops to remember.

"You do have to remind yourself that he's going to get better," Stoops said. "After watching the tape, I really thought he did some good things. He made some nice throws. He's going to get better and better."

Montgomery out for season; Timmons doubtful for Missouri

UK lost three receivers during the Alabama State win and will likely be without two of them this weekend against Missouri.

Ryan Timmons sprained his ankle late in the game, while Alexander Montgomery hurt his knee celebrating a second-quarter touchdown. Test results confirmed Stoops' postgame fears, as Montgomery will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.

When the team reconvenes on Monday, Stoops said he will address the way the Cats celebrate in the wake of the injury.

"We're not going to overdo it, but I'm going to definitely talk to them about relaxing a little bit with the jumping and chest-bumping and all that stuff," Stoops said.

Unfortunately, the Cats will be without Montgomery, his 6-foot-2 frame and his 137 yards receiving regardless. Javess Blue, however, should recover in time from an eye injury he suffered during warm-ups to play. Beyond Blue -- the team's leading receiver -- UK will need others to emerge for a thin receiving corps.

"I thought Jeff Badet played his best game," Stoops said. "That was good to see. Demarco (Robinson), we need to continue to get him healthy and get him back in the fold doing some good things. A.J. (Legree) is doing some better things as well, so that's a good sign.

Mobley turning heads with special-teams play

Dyshawn Mobley hasn't played a down of defense this season, but he has 10 tackles through eight games.

The sophomore running back has turned into a force on special teams, delivering forceful blows in kickoff coverage. He had tackles on three of UK's eight kickoffs against Alabama State, including a bone-crunching third-quarter stop of Jarrett Neely.

With his background as a defensive coordinator, Stoops sees a play like that one and wonders what Mobley would like on the other side of the ball.

"I would love to have him on defense, but that's the basically the message," Stoops said. "He's going to get the ball or he's going to come play defense."

It seems Neal Brown wants to hold on to his bruising back, because Mobley carried a season-high eight times for 36 yards against Alabama State.

UK football depth chart (Missouri week)

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Tight end
Jordan Aumiller
Anthony Kendrick
Steven Borden
Tyler Robinson
Patrick Ligon

Left tackle
Darrian Miller
Jordan Swindle

Left guard
Zach West
Max Godby or Teven Eatmon-Nared

Jon Toth
Zach Myers

Right guard
Kevin Mitchell
Jack Gruenschlaeger

Right tackle
Jordan Swindle
Shaquille Love

Wide receiver
Demarco Robinson
Jeff Badet

Wide receiver
Ryan Timmons
Daryl Collins
Ronnie Shields

Wide receiver
Javess Blue
Alexander Montgomery
A.J. Legree

Jalen Whitlow
Maxwell Smith

D.J. Warren
Cody Jones

Running back
Raymond Sanders or Jojo Kemp
Jonathan George
Dyshawn Mobley


Defensive end
Alvin Dupree
Jason Hatcher

Defensive tackle
Donte Rumph
Tristian Johnson

Defensive tackle
Mister Cobble
Mike Douglas
Christian Coleman

Defensive end
Za'Darius Smith
Farrington Huguenin
Alvin Davis

Strong-side linebacker
Josh Forrest
Kory Brown
Malcolm McDuffen

Middle linebacker
Avery Williamson
Miles Simpson

Weak-side linebacker
TraVaughn Paschal or Khalid Henderson

Blake McClain
Marcus McWilson

Nate Willis
Jaleel Hytchye

Ashely Lowery
Glenn Faulkner

Eric Dixon
Daron Blaylock

Fred Tiller
Cody Quinn
Eric Simmons

Special teams

Kelly Mason
Matthew Adolph
Tyler Robinson

Jared Leet
Landon Foster

Joe Mansour
Austin MacGinnis

Landon Foster
Joe Mansour

Kickoff returner
Demarco Robinson
Javess Blue
Raymond Sanders

Punt returner
Demarco Robinson
Javess Blue
Daryl Collins

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."

Mark Stoops

Neal Brown

Jalen Whitlow

Demarco Robinson

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