As a defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference, every week presents unique challenges to Kentucky's D.J. Eliot.
Eliot, in his second year directing the UK defense, faces another daunting task on Saturday as the Wildcats play host to Heisman Trophy frontrunner Dak Prescott and the top-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs at 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
"He's an excellent player. He's a veteran player. He's been there," Eliot detailed about MSU's junior quarterback. "He's gotten those reps that's made him such a great player. He can run it; he can throw it; he makes good decisions. It's going to be a huge challenge for us. We've been working really hard to defend him this week. We know they're a great offense and it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
During a junior season that has seen him emerge as the Heisman front-runner, Prescott has rushed for 576 yards and eight touchdowns, passing for 1,478 yards, with a 14-4 touchdown-interception ratio. Prescott presents a unique dual-threat challenge in the molds of recent SEC quarterback greats, including MSU head coach Dan Mullen's star during his time as the offensive coordinator at Florida, Tim Tebow.
"Well, when you're good at both, you've got to be able to defend both, so there's not just one certain area that I'm emphasizing on (this week in preparation)," Eliot said. "I've got to emphasize on all aspects of an offense to defend that offense and a quarterback like this."
Kentucky battled MSU in a tight game in Starkville, Miss., in 2013, with the Bulldogs edging the Wildcats, 28-22. Prescott accounted for three touchdowns - two passing - with his 17-yard TD reception with 36 seconds left in the third quarter serving as the game-winning score.
"You know, it's tough," Eliot described about the challenges of defending Prescott. "It's when they have a quarterback that's a runner that makes it even harder, because a lot of your keys that you teach defensive players are based off of the running back being the runner, so you have to kind of adjust some of that for the week and then on top of that, you just have to be really sound in the pass game. Because as soon as you tighten up for the run game, that's when they try to get one over your head."
Prescott finished the 2013 meeting with Kentucky charting 268 yards on 23-of-34 passing, rushing for 33 yards on 16 carries.
"He's making better decisions and he's getting rid of the ball quicker than he did last year," Eliot said. "He's always been a great runner and they've always had a great quarterback run game plan, but now he's added that dimension of being able to throw the ball and make great decisions as well."
Keeneland Hosting 'see blue.' Day on Friday: Keeneland will be a sea of blue when it hosts "see blue." Day to mark the official start of the University of Kentucky's homecoming weekend on Friday. UK and Keeneland are calling all fans to the post for a pep rally on The Hill, the track's popular tailgating area adjacent to the Keene Barn & Entertainment Center. The fun will begin at noon ET and feature the UK Pep Band playing the UK fight song and "My Old Kentucky Home," the CATS cheer led by the UK cheerleaders and an appearance by the UK dance team. UK students, alumni and faculty receive free general admission to the track and access to reserved Grandstand seating with valid UK IDs. Several UK Athletics teams will be honored during the racing on Friday as well.
As much as he may have wanted to, Neal Brown couldn't just throw away the tape from a blowout at LSU on Saturday.
Even though it's a painful reminder, there's too much to be gained from looking back at the loss for a young Kentucky team.
"If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video," Brown said. "Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
UK began the business of correcting those mistakes on Monday and Tuesday, with a practice on both days. Some tough coaching has resulted, but it's all geared toward preparing the Cats to play their best game on Saturday against Mississippi State.
"When we met yesterday, we were hard on those guys because we've got to be better," Brown said. "In those type of games and those type of atmospheres, we've got to be better. Why did things go wrong? Here's why, now let's go out and fix them."
The issues on offense, according to quarterback Patrick Towles, were across the board. UK, however, is on their way to fixing them.
"We just didn't really make plays," Towles said. "The coaches can call a perfect play, but you need to execute. We didn't execute at any level at any position, which you're going to get beat by everybody if you don't do that. We executed really good today. We'll build on that tomorrow so come Saturday we're ready to rock."
The Cats don't have much choice about whether to be ready if they want to win with the top-ranked Bulldogs coming to town. Both Brown and Towles said Mississippi State's defensive line and linebackers represent a challenge the likes of which UK has not yet seen, even against LSU and Florida.
"I think they've got the best front seven that we've played against, maybe the best in the league," Brown said. "I haven't seen them all yet, but their front seven is very talented, d-tackles, they go four deep there and they're big."
NFL Week 7 pitted six former Wildcats against one another, forcing a jumbled 5-6 record from Kentucky's 11 NFL alumni. Two UK record-holders extended their 2014 touchdown reception total, while two current teammates were each able to force a turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
After putting six points on the board, fourth year Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb was in the midst of a customary Lambeau Leap when one fan shared more of his meal than either individual anticipated. In the end, Cobb walked away with a large ketchup stain splattered across the number of his white shoulder pad, while the fan was left with a plain hotdog full of memories.
Cats in the Spotlight Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (5-2) With his eighth TD catch of the season, Cobb remains the No. 2 scoring threat in the NFL. Backed by Cobb's six receptions for 121 yards, the Packers won their fourth straight in a 38-17 blowout over Garry Williams' Carolina Panthers. Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (4-3) Though Johnson's 49ers were blown out 42-17 on Sunday Night Football by the Denver Broncos, Johnson played one of his best games in a San Francisco uniform. The former Kentucky fan favorite finished with five catches for 79 yards and his third touchdown of 2014.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5) In a discouraging 19-17 loss to the Washington Redskins, Williamson made three solo tackles and two assists before recovering his second fumble in as many weeks.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5) Like his rookie teammate, Woodyard showed up big for the Titans defense (despite the loss). Woodyard recorded seven total tackles (four solo and three assisted), as well his second interception of the year.
Winning five of six to open 2014, confidence was never a concern for Mark Stoops.
After Kentucky's only blowout loss of the season at LSU on Saturday, Stoops knows he needs to think about his team's psyche for the first time.
"You worry about it and we need to address it, because, you know, you're going to go through ups and downs, you're going to lose some games," Stoops said. "When you self-inflict against a good team--and I'm not taking anything away from LSU because they flat beat us across the board, but when you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence."
The mistakes, in a 41-3 defeat, were plentiful.
They started on special teams, where a series of errors played a role in all 27 of LSU's first-half points. The Tigers scored on four offensive possessions before halftime and they started, on average, at the UK 42.8-yard line due to three long returns, a personal foul and a squib kick recovered by LSU. The other seven points came on a punt returned for a touchdown.
"There's mistakes that can and will be corrected," Stoops said. "We've all made our mistakes this year, offensively, defensively, special teams. Again, they're magnified against a very talented team on the road, and when you open the game that way, it doesn't set the tone. That's not what you want. So they're magnified but they're things that can and will be fixed."
The miscues on special teams served to nullify a defensive effort by UK that Stoops says was better than the box score may suggest. LSU piled up 303 rushing yards, but the Tigers needed 51 carries to do it and did much of their damage once the outcome was well in hand.
After reviewing the film from Saturday, Stoops was able to see that.
"I don't think we were physically dominated on the field and, again, you just look at, hey, they ran the ball for 300 yards, you're not generally going to win a lot of games when teams run for 300 yards," Stoops said. "We know that's not acceptable but there are a lot of good, physical plays in there by our defensive guys."
UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will carry that awareness into an important week of practice leading up to a home matchup against Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). To compete with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Cats can't afford to let their confidence slip in the least.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well," Stoops said. "So now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
Stoops has a measure of control over that confidence, but he also knows predicting how the LSU loss will affect his team is an inexact science. Even so, he has a pretty clear idea how the Cats will react.
"I think because we got whooped and had because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Stoops impressed by MSU, Prescott
Mississippi State might not have been at the top of the polls when the season began, but Stoops isn't altogether surprised to see they are now.
The Bulldogs belong.
"They're a very talented football team," Stoops said. "You could tell they had a lot of confidence coming into the season just by the way they carried themselves at SEC Media, just listening to them with their quarterback and leadership."
Mississippi State boasts three wins over top-10 teams, all coming in the three weeks before a . The Bulldogs are last in the league in total defense, but much of that has to do with the big leads they've built in every game they've played this season. Along those same lines, Mississippi State ranks second in the conference in both interceptions and sacks.
On offense, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in total yards behind leading Heisman contender Dak Prescott.
"They're playing red hot and it starts with their quarterback," Stoops said. "He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams suffered an undisclosed head injury during the loss at LSU on Saturday. He returned to Lexington with the team and is now recovering, though Stoops had no timetable on his return.
"Things look better, not cleared to play yet, obviously," Stoops said. "I'll wait until the doctors tell me he can get on the field but, I think, yeah, things are looking better. When he will be cleared to practice or play I have no idea."
Williams took to Twitter on Sunday, a welcome development after the running back stayed on the ground for a number of minutes after taking a big hit on a kick return in Baton Rouge, La.
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
UK fell 41-3 at LSU on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knew his team would face its toughest test to date in Tiger Stadium.
For the first time this season, the Wildcats were unable to answer the bell and a blowout loss was the result. Stoops' appraisal of what had just happened was simple.
"There's not a whole heck of a lot to say," Stoops said. "They really took it to us from the opening kickoff return all the way through the game."
The opening kickoff return went 49 yards and gave the ball to the Tigers at the UK 29 following a facemask penalty, the first of a series of special-teams miscues that plagued the Cats in the first half. By the time halftime came, Kentucky trailed 27-3 in spite of being outgained just 184-135.
"Just got outplayed," Stoops said of special teams. "We got outplayed. We've been solid all year to this point and did not play good enough in this game. Give them credit. That's a good bunch, and they physically played better than us."
In the second half, the Tigers would again exert their will physically, this time in the ground game. Behind 127 yards and two touchdowns by Terrence Magee, LSU (6-2, 2-2 SEC) gained 303 rushing yards in a 41-3 win that dropped UK to 5-2 (2-2 Southeastern Conference).
"This is a physical football team," Stoops said. "That's what we'd like to look like some day. They're extremely long, very physical."
Against that physicality, UK could never muster any consistent offensive production. The athletic Tigers sacked Patrick Towles twice and held him to 19-of-36 passing and 146 yards, a season low. The Cats had even less luck running the ball, gaining 71 yards on 27 carries.
"You get humbled really quick in this league," Towles said. "We were kind of riding high and we kind of got punched in the gut, which happens."
On the heels of the humbling, the Cats will have no choice but to pick themselves up quickly with the next test facing them. Top-ranked Mississippi State, coming off a bye week, comes to Lexington next Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. ET showdown in Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, we gotta go back to work," Stoops said. "We gotta go back to work, and we'll see how we respond. We'll see how resilient we are and how tough we are. I have no reason to believe that we won't respond and go prepare and play well."
Stoops didn't hide his disappointment on Saturday night.
In UK's lone previous loss, the Cats absorbed punch after punch at Florida and were within a play of winning on the road. Two weeks ago, a blowout seemed a possibility as South Carolina built an early 14-0 lead, but Kentucky responded. That kind of fight suggested this team was past the kind of lopsided defeat the Cats suffered at the hands of LSU, but that wasn't the case.
Nonetheless, UK's next step is just the same as it would have been had the Cats pulled the upset.
"We will not let one game define us," Stoops said. "We did not play well. They had a lot to do with that. We'll get back to work this week and see what we can do to improve."