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October 3, 2009LEXINGTON | It was a 38-20 road victory, but just wasn't very fulfilling for some reason.
Sure, University of Alabama junior linebacker Rolando McClain played like he was trying to single-handedly make up for the loss of injured sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower with 12 tackles;
Sophomore running back Mark Ingram had his second 100-yard game of the season, with 140 on 22 carries and two touchdowns;
And after recording just four turnovers in September, the second-fewest in the Southeastern Conference, the Crimson Tide matched that number Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium with McClain factoring in three with an interception, forced fumble and deflection for another pick.
So it was a stepping stone, but sure didn't feel like that big move forward that No. 3 Alabama wanted.
"That was a really tough game," Coach Nick Saban said. "They were really physical out there and I'm talking about Kentucky."
For the first time this season, an opponent was able to match up with the Tide and run. Kentucky (2-2 overall, 0-2 SEC) churned out 133 rushing yards, twice as many as any other opponent, and effectively kept the ball away from the Tide through much of the first half.
That's also after Alabama came out flying and scored 57 seconds into the game thanks to senior Javier Arenas' 60 yard kick-return to set up Ingram's first touchdown, an 11-yard carry around the right side.
So when true freshman running back Trent Richardson barely avoided being stopped in the end zone for a safety midway through the second quarter, Kentucky felt it was that close to taking the momentum. Instead, senior tight end Colin Peek made a key catch for the first third-down conversion and Alabama was able to piece together a 13-play, 97-yard touchdown drive with Peek recording his first touchdown in crimson on a 3-yard catch with 45 seconds remaining in the half.
"I think that was the turning point in the game," Saban said.
However, the Tide wasn't done yet. On Kentucky's subsequent snap junior quarterback Mike Hartline connected with tailback Derrick Locke, only to have McClain punch the ball out and right to sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who hit the sideline and went 45 yards for the touchdown and 21-6 lead.
"I'm happy I had some guys lead the way because I was tired," Upshaw said. "All I was thinking was touchdown."
The opportunistic play continued in the third quarter, with McClain dropping back into a zone for his pickoff, and Alabama again taking advantage. This time Ingram made an adjustment before reaching the line of scrimmage and went in from 32 yards out.
"We had a guard pulling and he kind of went inside, I thought he was going to go outside, and I went outside and there were Kentucky players there, so I hopped back in and there was a little seam in the A-gap," Ingram said. "I hit it and broke an arm-tackle."
McClain struck again on the following possession when Hartline's pass over middle went off receiver Kyrus Lanxter with the linebacker sort of setting it like a volleyball, but one-handed.
"I knew that I could tip the ball to myself, but once I tipped it Cory Reamer hit me and luckily Eryk Anders was there," McClain said. "I wanted to show I could jump a little bit."
Junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who went 15-for-26 and 148 yards despite having some trouble with the swirling wind, later finished the Tide's scoring with a 7-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Darius Hanks, his career first.
"It was a corner route," Hanks said. "It felt good."
But Kentucky still managed to keep pace offensively, at least statistically, and even finished with more first downs, 20 to 18. Randall Cobb caught a 45-yard touchdown pass to keep Kentucky's slim chances alive and the Wildcats reached the end zone again early in the fourth quarter.
Consequently, the Alabama defense gave up 301 yards, and average of 5.2 per play, even with the turnovers and the team scoring two touchdowns 19 seconds apart before halftime.
"That's when you have to shut the door and not let them back in," said senior end Lorenzo Washington, indirectly explaining some the unfulfilled feelings.
While Alabama won to remain undefeated at 5-0 (2-0 SEC), it didn't have the strong finish, dominating play or swagger of the first three games.
"Even though it's a win, we're not satisfied with it," McClain said. "We know we can play a lot better."