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Stoops, Cats prepared for unknown in first game of new era

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Mark Stoops will coach the first game of his UK tenure on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET vs. Western Kentucky University. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops will coach the first game of his UK tenure on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET vs. Western Kentucky University. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Each of the last three seasons, Kentucky and Western Kentucky University have faced off, breeding familiarity between the two in-state foes.

But as UK and WKU prepare to play a season-opening game - the final one of a four-year agreement between the two schools - few are talking about how well the Wildcats and Hilltoppers know one another. With new staffs and styles of play on both sides, it's actually quite the opposite.

On one sideline will be Mark Stoops, who will take the field for the first time as a head coach. That first experience can be an overwhelming one - particularly for someone like Stoops who has waited so long for the opportunity - but Stoops has too much faith in the work he's done these last nine months to let that get to him.

"Just like I tell the players: There's no need to be nervous or anything like that because of your preparation," Stoops said. "We've worked extremely hard as a staff."

Stoops has thought through all the details of game day, from the way the team will dress in sport coats to coin-toss strategy, but unknowns are inevitable considering his coaching counterpart. Bobby Petrino - returning to coaching after a year off - will coach his first game at WKU on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at Nashville's LP Field.

"Both of us are in the same situation, I think," Stoops said. "They've had a little bit more time if they wanted to get creative and change some things up certainly between years. But it will be a great challenge. Very good offensive mind, very good defensive mind (in defensive coordinator Nick Holt) over there at Western. We'll have a lot to prepare for."

In getting ready for the WKU offense, Stoops and UK's defensive coaches have exhausted every possible source of information. They've watched tape of Petrino's offenses at previous stops, including Arkansas, and plenty of film of the Hilltoppers' personnel.

Jumping off the page in the latter half of that preparation is running back Antonio Andrews. The 6-foot senior racked up an NCAA-best 3,161 all-purpose yards in 2012. He rushed for more than 1,700 yards and caught 37 passes for 432 yards and his role in the passing game could expand in Petrino's offense.

"I'm sure they'll lean heavily on the running back," Stoops said. "He's a fantastic player, Antonio Andrews, and just a great player. So he's somebody that we got to keep an eye on."

As detailed and varied as UK has been in its preparation for WKU, neither the coaching staff nor the players are directing their focus too far outside themselves.

"I have a mix-match of things I look at to determine what we're going to get," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "But ultimately I'm just worried about us. My concentration has been on the Kentucky defense and how we play and how sound we are fundamentally."

The same goes for the UK offense. The Cats began practices specifically tailored to prepare for WKU last week and Neal Brown has settled on a more stripped-down attack for Saturday.

"I guess we've been repping Western Kentucky since last Thursday, Wednesday or Thursday. So we've got a lot of reps in the things we're going to do," Brown said. "We're going to be relatively simple, so they've been sharp, especially (Tuesday and Wednesday of this week)."

However, it's not as if UK will be a breeze to prepare for on offense. Stoops and Brown haven't yet announced a starter at quarterback, but the plan is for both Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow to play.

"I think they both played very well throughout the summer camp and both deserve the opportunity to play," Stoops said. "So I hope it can be to our benefit."

The combination of a more traditional pocket passer in Smith and a dual-threat quarterback in Whitlow could give UK's offense an added dimension come game day, but it's already helped UK's defense. WKU has named Brandon Doughty as its quarterback starter, but athletic redshirt freshman Damarcus Smith could see time as well.

"It'll help us tremendously because have seen an athletic quarterback on practice with Jalen and then we'll be prepared if they decide to go that direction," Eliot said.

That's just one of many areas in which UK can only guess what WKU will do, and the same goes for the Cats themselves in many ways.

"I think we're a team that's still growing, a team that's still learning and trying to put it all together," Stoops said. "Again, I've said it all along. I've been pleased with their attitude and their work ethic and the way they're going about their business. The character of the team to see how much of a chip on our shoulder we have and how we go out there and play and how confidently we play is yet to be seen."

Confidence is still very much a work in progress for Stoops' first team, but not for Stoops himself. He believes in his plan, and more importantly, he believes in his team.

"We can be a very good team, and we can shock a lot of people," Stoops said. "We've just got to do what we can do and do it to the best of our ability, and that's what I want to see out of them."

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