UK fan Kelly Melton isn't shy about wanting to "kick cancer in the butt" and several current and former UK student-athletes and coaches are helping him do just that.
Former Kentucky basketball star Nerlens Noel and current football kicker Max Strong have teamed up with others to start a "Kickin it 4 Kelly" Cancer Fund. The goal is to raise $100,000 for Kelly and the Melton family as the youngster battles Leukemia.
Kelly and Strong got creative to find ways for UK players and coaches to help raise money, starting a whip cream challenge. Kelly challenged several UK student-athletes and coaches, including UK football head coach Mark Stoops.
Stoops, along with several members of the UK football team accepted the challenge after Tuesday's football practice, which can be seen at the video below.
Mark Stoops made it clear after Saturday's loss at Florida that he wasn't satisfied.
He was proud of his team's effort in the triple-overtime defeat, sure, but he knew there was work ahead.
Three days later, the Wildcats are taking the same approach.
"Attitude's good," Stoops said. "I thought the players really took it to heart, really looked at the film, were very critical of themselves and looked at all areas where we all can improve."
During practice on Tuesday -- the second of this bye week -- the Cats spent time on fundamentals, correcting mistakes from the Florida game and getting a head start on preparation for Vanderbilt. Though the Cats have been appropriately hard on themselves, they're also carrying confidence built on Saturday.
"I think each step, each time you get closer and closer, they believe more and more," Stoops said. "And I think most of them listen to you on Monday and I talked about that going into the game: Let's not come in here and say, 'Boy, that was close. Good effort.' Because we're not satisfied with that. I think each time you get closer and closer you put yourself in positions like that and we keep on working and fundamentally getting better, the next time we get that opportunity we'll win."
Because of the bye week, that next opportunity won't come for another seven days. Stoops would rather not wait for Sept. 27.
"If it was up to me, I think I'd love to go play," Stoops said. "Guys are in good spirits. We have a lot left in our tank. We got a lot more we can do, a lot better things and we're excited to go to work. I wish we were playing, but we'll deal with it the way it is."
On a positive note, the Cats will have an opportunity to recover from nagging injuries. Braylon Heard and Javess Blue, for example, played at less than full speed at Florida with ankle injuries, but they should be back for Vandy and Stoops said UK will be "close to a hundred percent" as a team.
The bye week also affords an opportunity for players the coaching staff is planning to redshirt to see more time in practice.
"Got some of our younger guys a lot of work that are potential redshirts," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Drew (Barker) got a bunch of work today. Thaddeus Snodgrass got a bunch of work. T.V. (Williams), who didn't play as much in the last game, got him a lot of work."
All that's important, but the priority is to get ready for the next test.
"You get guys healthy and stuff, but it's essential we treat this week as a week to definitely improve fundamentally," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Vanderbilt's a good team. They went down to Florida last year and beat the crap out of them, so they're tough. Same front seven last year who gave us a hard time last year are back. We can't afford to take anybody lightly, so we're excited about getting prepared for Vandy like we did today and we'll be ready to next Saturday."
Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in UK's loss at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops isn't one for moral victories.
But even Stoops, for all his reminders that his tenure will ultimately be judged by wins, had to admit that what he saw from his Kentucky team in a loss at Florida was something special.
" 'We weren't perfect, but it was a perfect effort tonight,' " Stoops said, borrowing a quote from "When The Game Stands Tall," the movie the team watched together on Friday night. "So I really appreciate our players, their commitment to the preparation. They left it all on the field."
As perfect as the effort was, it came up just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss in Gainesville, Fla. In a game that featured more twists and turns than an Austin MacGinnis game-tying field goal, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) came unimaginably close to finally putting an end to a losing streak to Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) that now stands at 28 games.
The outcome was in doubt until Matt Jones ran in the game-winning one-yard touchdown in the third overtime, with both the Wildcats and Gators appearing on the verge of sealing victory on multiple occasions. Seemingly every series of a second half that followed a bruising first half that ended with the score tied 3-3, there was a game-turning play.
Disappointed to have fallen short, the Cats surely spent the flight home to Lexington ruing all the moments that could have made the difference. The most noteworthy was the play that Florida used to force a second overtime period.
With UK leading 27-20, Jason Hatcher tackled Kelvin Taylor for a four-yard loss to set up a fourth and 7 from the Wildcat nine. Receiving the snap just in time to avoid a delay of game, Jeff Driskel fired a pass over the head of Ashely Lowery to Demarcus Robinson -- the only Gator UK never had an answer for -- for a game-tying touchdown.
But for all the plays not made that could have turned the outcome, there were just as many moments that showed exactly how far Kentucky football has come under Stoops' watch.
"I am very proud of them, yes," Stoops said. "Very much, because it's not easy. That's a good football team. I was just very proud of the way we kept responding and facing adversity and coming back and making plays and having a great opportunity to win the game."
It started on defense, where UK held its opponent without a first-half touchdown for the third consecutive game to start the 2014 season. The Gators moved the ball, but Za'Darius Smith and the Cats' physical front seven never wilted as the offense found its feet against a speedy and talented Florida group. Florida only managed a field goal, which UK answered with a gutsy two-minute drill to tie it headed to the locker room.
When the two teams retook the field, it was a whole new ballgame.
"We were trying a lot of things, and we were all scratching and clawing for the best opportunity to stop each other," Stoops said. "The first half it was defense and then all of the sudden there, third and fourth quarter, offenses start moving the ball."
After Patrick Towles threw an interception on the first possession of the second half and Florida quickly capitalized with a touchdown, the sophomore responded in his first road start. He guided back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter, tossing a pair of long scoring passes to freshman Garrett Johnson, who had a coming-out party in his return to his home state with six catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson, however, was but one of six Stoops recruits to touch the ball on offense against Florida. Four more played significant action on the offensive line and eight made tackles on defense.
"That's why we recruited them," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're not scared of this moment. It got loud in there tonight. It got loud. This was a big-time environment. They never blinked and I'm not surprised one bit. I'm zero surprised. That's why we recruited them. That's why a lot of people in the country recruited them."
Towles would later lead the drive that sent the game to overtime. It was a 12-play, 43-yard drive that chewed up 5:10 and eventually set up a 51-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal that first looked good, then appeared to curve outside the goalposts and finally glanced off the upright and through.
"I take my hat off to him," Stoops said of MacGinnis, who made 3-of-4 field goals. "He was clutch. He made some very difficult kicks. I'm proud of him."
Towles seemed poised to turn around and lead the game-winning drive in regulation after the defense came up with a clutch stop.
Pinned deep with a third and 16 on his own one-yard line following a booming punt and an intentional grounding call, Towles calmly dropped back into the end zone and delivered a strike for a first down to Johnson down the middle. Two plays later, he did the same, but the pass glanced off the hands of Ryan Timmons into the waiting arms of Keanu Neal for Towles' third interception.
"I can't put all the interceptions on him," Stoops said. "The one late, down the sideline on third down, that was as good as punt. Threw it up and gave our guy an opportunity to make a play. We had to resort to that a little bit, where we wanted our big wideouts to try to go up and make a play."
More often than not, those big receivers came up with plays. All told, Towles completed 24-of-45 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns to go with 22 rushing yards.
"In here, in this atmosphere. I thought he did a great job keeping plays alive, not taking sacks," Brown said. "I thought he did a really good job running the football when we asked him to do that. I was extremely proud of how he played and it was a big step in his maturation process."
The third of Towles touchdowns was the play of the day for UK and nearly the game winner.
On the first play of overtime, Towles threw in the flat to Stanley "Boom" Williams. The true freshman probed for space, found none and committed what would be a cardinal sin for almost any player in the country, attempting to reverse the field on Florida's defense. For a player of Williams' ability, it proved to be a 25-yard touchdown and the running back's introduction to the SEC.
"Boom's play in the first overtime, that was a terrific individual effort by him to get in the end zone," Stoops said.
Had UK managed a stop on that fateful fourth down, Williams' play would have been the signature moment in the signature win of Stoops' tenure in Lexington. Instead, it's the first loss of 2014, encouraging as certain aspects of it may be.
"Of course we've made progress, but obviously not enough progress or else we would have won that game," Towles said. "Like I said, losing sucks. It's awful. I hate it. It's not something that's going to become a habit around here. We'll watch it tomorrow, we'll get better and we'll be ready to go in two weeks."
Following a bye, UK will return to action in Commonwealth Stadium. In that game against Vanderbilt, the Cats will look to take what they gained from a loss and turn it into what they're really after: a win.
"We're never, ever gonna be happy with moral victories," Stoops said. "But if we lay it on the line like that and prepare like that and go to play like that, then we'll grow up and we'll have more opportunities to win. And when we get in those opportunities, you got to learn from this and you got to make plays."
Freshman Taylor Braun has posted four consecutive shutouts in goal for Kentucky. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Brianna Brents, UK Athletics
Freshmen have a choice in joining a college team for the first time: act their age or take control.
Taylor Braun has chosen the latter.
The goalkeeper is stepping up to the plate as a new freshman on the team that lets hard work speak for itself.
In spite of the attitude, Braun was still a little shocked when she was named Co-Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week only three weeks into the season.
"I have to give credit to my team and my defenders helping me out throughout preseason and through the first couple of our games, but it was definitely an awesome feeling," said Braun.
Braun spent a lot of her summer training and growing to become better at her skill. She selected Kentucky because she wanted to be a part of a team that was continuing to build, and with Jon Lipsitz as the head coach, she wanted to be a part of making a legacy.
Lipsitz said he wasn't surprised at all by the way Braun has stepped up and made big saves.
"Our plan for all of our players is to first get better every day, and she's been looking at a lot of film and seeing the things that she has been doing well, and the things that she's not doing well," Lipsitz said. "We go out on the field and work on it; it's just a part of the process."
Reacting positively to short-term failure is what Kentucky women's soccer is all about.
"We lost a game at the beginning of the year and we learned from it," Lipsitz said. "I'm not a believer in you have to lose to be motivated. I'm glad that we've continued to learn from the first game, and the difference is we're learning in victory rather than defeat now".
UK has done plenty of that since that season-opening 4-1 loss at Washington. The Wildcats have won five games in a row, the last four coming in shutout fashion with Braun in goal.
"I just wanted to come in and make a statement that it doesn't matter what age you are, you can be a factor in the game," Braun said.
UK will look to cap a successful run through nonconference play on Sunday at noon ET at home against Pepperdine. After that, it's on to conference play in the always challenging SEC. The Cats' goals through all of that are simple.
"We want to get better every day and we want to win every game and that never changes," Lipsitz said. "That's a part of the process of being in the culture of our team. We're going to be great teammates to one another, we're going to be a family and we're going to work incredibly hard to get better every day."
At Kentucky, that team mentality is fueled by an individually focused approach, counterintuitive as that may seem.
"We take pride in our girls in this program on the individual development of our players, and because of the players developing so much individually, the team gets better also," said Lipsitz.
UK's precocious goalkeeper is an important part of that process.
"Bigger things are coming for our team individually and collectively," Braun said. "It takes a lot of discipline and work ethic to play at this level and you have to do a lot of work on your own. You have to grind when there are days when you're tired, have a lot of homework or didn't get much sleep; you just have to press through. Every day I go in focused and try to get better and learn the aspects of the game and become a student of the game every day."
Callum Irving posted a shutout in UK's 1-0 win at top-ranked Notre Dame on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
As the lingering seconds began to vanish one by one from the clock overhead on Monday, Callum Irving had no idea he was about to take the biggest goal kick of his collegiate career.
"I looked at the clock as I was running over to grab the ball, and the ref had stopped it because he thought I was wasting time," Irving said. "So basically, I was like, 'I'm going to take my time, put the ball down, and make sure I use as much power that I have left in my leg to try to get the ball as far away from our net as possible.' "
Letting the clock strike zero with no goals on the board for either team was the last thing on the junior's mind. Like the rest of his Wildcat teammates, Kentucky's First-Team All-Conference USA goalkeeper was hungry for a marquee win.
Irving booted the goal kick well into opponent territory, finding freshman forward Stefan Stojkovic along the way. Stojkovic immediately passed the ball to freshman midfielder Hampus Agerstrom, who again found Stojkovic for a quick one-two at the edge of the box. Stojkovic fired away from 15 yards, scoring the game's first goal with only 25 ticks remaining.
Kentucky would hold on to win the game 1-0, knocking off defending national champion and top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The result marked UK's first victory over a No. 1 team since 2007, and the Fighting Irish's first loss since October 26, 2013.
Needless to say, Kentucky's man in the net was pleased with how the evening ended.
"This is one of the more memorable games (of my career)," Irving said. "For me, this is what I came to college to do: go to places like Notre Dame and play against the No. 1 team in the nation and defending national champs, and beat them on their home turf. To have that goal coming into college, and then to be put in a scenario where we have the opportunity to do that, it's fantastic. It's definitely something I'm going to look back on with a lot of happiness."
Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren echoed Irving's sentiments, though he was quick to point out that the Wildcats' latest milestone was merely another step forward in achieving the team's ultimate objective.
"It's a regular-season game, and you still have fourteen games to go," Cedergren said. "But, as young of a team as we have -- 21 of the 26 guys being underclassmen -- I think it's really important to talk a lot about confidence and belief. To be able to beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame should give both the staff and the players a lot of confidence."
The Cats will carry that confidence throughout the season.
"I think for the young guys, it's all about feeling like you belong, or feeling that you're good enough," Cedergren said. "We talk about making a run deep into the postseason. If you're going to do that, you're going have to believe that you belong. I think a win against Notre Dame would give you some belief and sense of belonging."
While Kentucky's 1-0 defeat of Notre Dame may qualify as an upset, the result came as no accident. Careful consideration and detailed planning before the season even began were factors that eventually led to the match even taking place.
"The way I schedule every year is to try to find a balance between not scheduling too tough, and scheduling hard enough so that if we do not win the (Conference USA Tournament), we can get an (NCAA Tournament) at-large bid," Cedergren said.
However, the third-year head coach refused to take all of the credit for the current direction of Kentucky's soccer season.
"I have a really good leadership council," Cedergren said. " ... The team basically got to vote for who they thought the leaders were on the team. So, we have five guys in that council: Callum Irving, (forward) Justin Laird -- who's our only senior - (sophomore defender) Charlie Reymann, (junior midfielder) Kristoffer Tollefsen, and (sophomore defender) Jordan Wilson. The six of us meet at least on a weekly basis, and I give them challenges they can carry on with the team."
Irving, who had a career-high seven saves in the upset at Notre Dame, offered further insight into the Cats' leadership council.
"Basically, it's just five guys selected by the team to look over the team and act as captains, being a buffer zone in between the coaches and the players," Irving said. "A lot of times, it's difficult for the players to come with their problems to the coaches; it's a bit intimidating. So, we act as someone who can talk to the coaches on behalf of the players and listen to the players' problems without them having to go to the coaches."
The next task for UK's leadership council is to make sure the Cats don't squander the opportunity created by their big win. That starts on Saturday at 7 p.m. with a home match against East Tennessee State.
"For us -- where we're the young team -- we're on top of the world right now," Cedergren said. "But we're playing again on Saturday. Every single game, play like you're going to play at Notre Dame. I think it's a step in the right direction with the win, but at the same time, it's game No. 4 out of 18 regular season games. So, we've just got to keep going."
Two days before Kentucky's first road test of the season at Florida, the Wildcats had a light Thursday with a walkthrough and positional meetings.
"Players are focused and we're excited to get on that plane tomorrow," Stoops said. "We got one more run-through tomorrow. We'll have about a 45-minute to an hour practice tomorrow and then we'll get on that bus and load up and head to Gainesville. So putting the finishing touches on a good week."
Returning to practice were running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue. Though they were limited, the two playmakers will be on the flight down to Florida Friday afternoon.
"They were out there a little bit, so we'll see," Stoops said. "Yeah, they're going to make the trip. We'll get something out of them."
Zach West, on the other hand, has been ruled out for Saturday. With the starter at left guard out with a neck injury, Cole Mosier will step in. A week after the Wildcats allowed five sacks to Ohio, Stoops knows they will need to be better against an athletic Gator defensive front.
"We've got to play well," Stoops said. "We've got to do what we do and that's get rid of the football quick when we can, make good decisions. We've got to protect and have all 11 guys on the same page, so. We've worked hard and we'll go down there and they'll play well. They'll improve."
Bud Dupree and UK will take on Florida on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Quick starts, two games in, have become habit for Kentucky.
The Wildcats outscored UT Martin and Ohio by a combined tally of 52-0 in the first half, shutting out back-to-back opponents before halftime for the first time in 26 years.
Repeating the feat against an opponent UK hasn't beaten in even longer is a tall order. That doesn't mean the Cats won't give it a shot against Florida.
"I think it will be very challenging to jump out in front of them like we did the first two (games)," Mark Stoops said. "But that's what we're going to try to do."
The reality is that such a start is unlikely as a young UK team ventures into Southeastern Conference play for the first time at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Making things even tougher is that the Cats will do it in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as the Swamp, against a Florida team always among the nation's most talented.
All that makes for a different kind of test for Kentucky this weekend in Gainesville, Fla.
"We all know we're in for a higher level of competition, and we're excited about that," Stoops said. "The players and coaches will be excited. We'll see where we're at this week."
The Cats have indeed been excited in practice all week, sustaining and even building on the energy that has carried them to a 2-0 start entering a trip to face the Gators (1-0).
"It's our first big test," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It's our first real test this year and this is why you sign up to come to Kentucky to play these kinds of teams in these kinds of atmospheres, so you can tell everybody's got a little extra this week going down there."
Adding fuel to the fire, at least in theory, are the 16 players on UK's roster from the Sunshine State. Even though sophomore running back Jojo Kemp has friends on the Florida team and a big contingent of family members planning to come on Saturday, he says the extra juice isn't about going home.
"It's not because we're from Florida," Kemp said. "It's really because it's an SEC team and just because it's Florida and the streak. A lot of guys just want to really focus on changing the program and like they're next up, so why not Florida to do it? They're next. We're going to out there and play our best game and hopefully we come out with a win."
The streak Kemp refers to, of course, is the 28 years UK has gone without a win over the Gators. There isn't a current Wildcat who was even alive when Kentucky beat Florida 10-3 in 1986, but Towles is aware of the drought and admits he thinks about what it would be like to put an end to it. At the same time, he knows history won't matter much after the opening kickoff.
"I saw somewhere, it's the 2014 Wildcats versus the 2014 Gators, we're not playing Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and those guys," Towles said. "They've got a really good team. We're excited about going down there and giving them all we've got."
In making his first road start, Towles will look to find holes in a Florida defense with a well-established reputation under head coach Will Muschamp.
"Florida is Florida," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "The strength of their defense is speed."
Running a new scheme under former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, the same can be said of the Gators on offense.
Florida has moved to a fast-paced spread attack and it worked to the tune of 65 points and 655 yards in a season-opening win over Eastern Michigan. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, a year removed from a broken leg that ended his 2013 season early, is leading the way.
"I think they're much different offensively this year," Stoops said. "They got some weapons and they got some real speed outside, a great scheme. You know, I think they're much improved offensively."
Florida ran 86 plays against Eastern Michigan, playing with the kind of pace Brown looks for in his own Air Raid offense. Coping with it won't be easy, but UK's defense has racked up some applicable experience in practice.
"Going against our offense, being a tempo offense, has helped us a lot conditioning wise and getting us ready for all the offenses in the SEC that will go no huddle," Bud Dupree said. "The way you stop that, you just have to cut out the big plays first and then they'll slow down."
That might be easier said than done, but the attitude reflects confidence the Cats are carrying with them to Florida.
They get that they aren't a finished product. They understand how intimidating the Swamp is. They know how athletic the Gators are. They also believe all of that can be overcome if they do what they're supposed to.
"We have to play well on all sides to have a chance to win," Stoops said. "We're not dominant enough on offense or dominant enough on defense. When we put it all together, we're good enough to play with anybody. We just have to play well."
UK is facing its first Southeastern Conference test this weekend and dealing the natural boost that follows.
That doesn't mean the Wildcats are shifting their practice habits with Florida looming on Saturday.
"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys seemed to be energetic, flying around, excited. It's just a typical Wednesday, so things went well."
For UK, that means a combination of team and scout work, the second of which being of particular importance given the Gators' change in offensive style this season.
Under former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, Florida has moved to a spread attack that plays at a pace similar to what the UK defense has dealt with in practice all fall camp and through the first two weeks of the season.
"They're a spread offense now," Eliot said. "Last year they were mainly a pro-style offense with some spread looks. And now they are a spread offense with a few pro looks."
Their opener declared a no contest due to inclement weather, the Gators have only played one game this season, a 65-0 thrashing of Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Florida racked up 655 yards on 86 plays in the win, throwing 47 times.
That means it will be all hands on deck for a UK defense playing a different style as well, though due to changes in personnel more than system. With Avery Williamson and his 102 tackles now in the NFL and UK rotating much more freely at linebacker, 16 Wildcats have four or more tackles, led by A.J. Stamps' 14.
That's just fine with Eliot.
"We're not concerned about who makes the play," Eliot said. "It's just that they're made. I would like to see a defense that all those plays are spread out amongst a lot of players."