Tight end’s catches ignite burst of touchdowns to pull away
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Alabama had just escaped the shadow of its own goal line when quarterback Greg McElroy looked to Colin Peek.
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Sputtering through 22 minutes of the early Kentucky afternoon, the leader of Alabama’s offense told his tight end he’d find the end zone on the third-down play deep in Wildcat territory.
Peek only gained 21 yards on that following reception, but its effect was staggering. It awoke the docile Crimson Tide offense that, along with an opportunistic defense, blew open a tight game for a 38-20 win at Kentucky.
A 3-yard McElroy to Peek touchdown connection capped the 13-play, 97-yard drive rescued by the tight end’s earlier catch that started the outburst. It was the first of three touchdowns in a two-minute span that took much of the tension out of what was an electric Commonwealth Stadium when third-ranked Alabama led just 7-6.
“Well, I think that was a turning point in the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “… Hitting the tight end down the middle was a big play on third down and got us started and gave Greg some confidence. He threw the ball effectively on that drive and that’s what we needed to do the whole game.”
The 17 Alabama points following Peek’s touchdown all came off Kentucky turnovers — the Wildcats totaled four, including three Mike Hartline interceptions. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw’s 45-yard return of a fumble forced by Rolando McClain went for a touchdown just 21 seconds before halftime.
It was just one of the miscues that spoiled what started well for the Wildcats.
The first Tide opponent who focused on the run did so effectively most of the day. By the end of the first quarter, Kentucky was outgaining the Tide 81-26 while running 26 plays to Alabama’s nine.
Only Javier Arenas’ 60-yard return of the opening kickoff and the Mark Ingram touchdown run that followed kept Kentucky from completely dominating the early going. McElroy completed just 1-of-6 first-quarter passes as Alabama played into the same wind that aided a pair of 49-yard Lones Seiber field goals.
The wind, Saban said, may have affected the game plan that was “a little more conservative than we needed to be.”
However, since Kentucky (2-2, 0-2 SEC East) couldn’t find the end zone when it was moving the ball early, Alabama never lost control.
And when it latched on with that 17-point outburst, Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC West) never let go.
“A lot of teams come out and play on emotion, I believe,” Ingram said. “And when we hit them in the mouth, it takes that away and they just wear down. And that’s when we start taking advantage of them in the second half.”
Ingram’s ability to establish a running game also factored into the change of fortunes. Relying on the ineffective passing game early led to quick possessions and very little success.
Kentucky got equal doses of Ingram and Peek from the second quarter on. The tight end caught a season-high six passes for 65 yards to lead Alabama while Ingram ran for 140 yards on 22 carries.
His 32-yard touchdown run that followed a McClain interception early in the third quarter put the Tide up 28-6, although it didn’t appear to have much potential at first.
“We had a guard pulling and he went inside when I thought he was going outside,” he said. “I hopped back in and there was a little seam and I hit it.”
Defensively, Alabama used the same group of linebackers who finished last Saturday’s win over Arkansas after linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s season-ending knee injury. Cory Reamer took Hightower’s spot at Will, Eryk Anders moved to Sam from Jack where Upshaw played.
The interception, forced fumble and a tap of a deflected pass that was intercepted by Anders complimented McClain’s game-high 12 tackles.
Kentucky’s ability to run up for 133 yards on a defense allowing just 47.2 a game still left McClain frustrated.
“Even though it’s a win and we’ll take the win, we’re not really satisfied with it,” he said. “We could have played a lot better.”