LEXINGTON, Ky. — Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain showed no hint of a smile, even after racking up a season-high 12 tackles, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble.
McClain was hardly the only member of Alabama s highly touted defense scowling in the locker room following a 38-20 victory at Kentucky.
“Even though it’s a win and we’ll take the win, we’re not really satisfied with it,” McClain said Saturday. “We know we could have played a lot better.”
First the good news. Alabama (5-0, 2-0) capitalized on four turnovers against Kentucky (2-2, 0-2), matching its total from the previous four games combined.
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However, the three interceptions came off wildly errant passes from Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline, who threw two of them right to a Crimson Tide defender and had another tipped high in the air, then picked off.
While Alabama progressed in the turnover category, the number of Kentucky mistakes made the Wildcats’ 20 points even more concerning for a Crimson Tide defense that came into the game ranked second in the country.
Derrick Locke carried the ball 20 times for 85 of Kentucky’s 133 rushing yards — more than double the best team rushing performance an Alabama opponent has garnered all year.
“They played hard, played with a lot of toughness,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They ran the ball on us as well as anybody probably has for a while.”
Saban knows the run defense will have to tighten in a hurry.
A trip to No. 21 Mississippi looms next, followed by three tough home games and culminating with an SEC West showdown against Saban’s former team, LSU.
Alabama returns nine starters from a defense that allowed 263.5 yards a game last year, but Saturday the offense wore out the Wildcats. The Crimson Tide scored 24 points in just over 5 minutes between the second and third quarters, largely putting the game out of reach.
“A lot of teams come out and play on emotion,” said Mark Ingram, who ran for 140 yards and two TDs. “The more we hit them in the mouth, it wears them down.”
Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick said he saw marked improvement for Alabama’s defense after the sluggish first quarter when the Tide led just 7-6.
“We knew that wasn’t our style of football,” Deaderick said. “We weren’t being physical up front and we weren’t being as tough as we usually play. It wasn’t our brand of defense. They were running it on us and that’s one thing we really pride ourselves on.”
More impressive throughout was the pass defense. A week after shutting down Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, who entered the game as the nation’s top-rated passer, it was more of the same against Hartline. He never had much time and completed just one pass longer than 18 yards — a 45-yard touchdown for Randall Cobb.
Hartline completed 17 of 31 passes for 168 yards.
“We try to affect the quarterback — get him out of his rhythm, make him make a mistake,” defensive lineman Lorenzo Washington said. “I think we did our job.”
Kentucky coach Rich Brooks acknowledged Hartline has struggled the past two weeks, but that was understandable considering the team has played two of the top defenses — No. 1 Florida and Alabama.
“I think Alabama, defensively, is just as good as Florida, (might) be better,” Brooks said. “Offensively, they’re a totally different style.”