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Cats going 'back to work' after WKU loss

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UK lost to Western Kentucky University, 35-26, in Mark Stoops head-coaching debut. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK lost to Western Kentucky University, 35-26, in Mark Stoops head-coaching debut. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ever since his first interview with Mitch Barnhart, Mark Stoops has had a plan for rebuilding the Kentucky football program. Losing his first game as head coach, clearly, was not part of it.

But even though Western Kentucky University may have handed him a loss in his debut, Stoops isn't changing his approach. He isn't going back to the drawing board in disappointment, abandoning his dedication to "the process."

His plan for Sunday, in fact, is exactly what it would have been had the 35-26 final score been reversed.

"We'll get back to work," Stoops said. "Win or lose, I told the team, 'Back to work tomorrow.' We've got to get some things fixed and plan on doing that."

To be sure, Stoops was disappointed by what he saw at LP Field and he's not trying to cloud that fact. The offense, though it racked up 419 total yards and 216 on the ground, never quite found a rhythm.

"We didn't play good as a team," Stoops said.

 The defense, in spite of allowing WKU to convert just 2-of-10 third downs and forcing a pair of turnovers, struggled with missed tackles and positioning in allowing 487 yards to the Hilltoppers.

"Not very pleased with the way we played," Stoops said. "I thought we'd play better than that. They controlled us at the line of scrimmage, created some good run plays, different looks. We looked out of place. Simple things, you know, leverage on the football, I thought we were very poor."

And even though he felt comfortable leading a team onto the field for the first time, Stoops knows the coaching staff has to be better too.

"I need to get our team in a better position to win," Stoops said.

That sentiment colored the message he delivered to his team in the postgame locker room. Facing a group of players who knew they were capable of more because they did it throughout the offseason, Stoops told the Wildcats to tip their caps to a WKU squad that was better on this night and move on to what's next.

Since Stoops arrived, he's hit all the right notes. He and his staff have recruited at unprecedented levels. Players have changed their bodies through the High Performance program. Fans have rallied to the cause in record numbers. The WKU loss, in many ways, is the first true challenge to the wave of optimism surrounding the program. That's what makes responding to it the right way so important.

"We all need to do a better job," Stoops said. "But if we would've won this game, we would go back to work tomorrow the same way. Win or lose, you got to go back, regroup and put a good game plan together, put the work in and just get better. We need to improve. There's a lot of room for improvement, and I anticipate us doing that."

Defensively, that begins with fundamentals. On offense, it's largely the same.

Much of the talk leading up to Saturday's home opener vs. Miami (Ohio) will center on the quarterback position and the role UK's signal callers play in that. Jalen Whitlow started and played the first three quarters. The dimension Whitlow's athleticism adds to the offense was on display as he rushed for a career-high 75 yards and a touchdown, but threw for only 78 yards on 15 attempts.

"He made some plays with his feet," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I think he's gotta throw it better. I thought he was nervous. I thought it showed early. But it's hard to say until you watch (the tape)."

Smith, meanwhile, completed 8-of-13 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in just three series. He led two scoring drives as UK's bid to rally from a 35-17 fourth-quarter deficit fell short.

Regardless of how well the quarterbacks did or didn't play and no matter which ends up starting next week, the supporting cast must improve in order to the offense to take steps forward.

"We've gotta be better around him," Brown said. "You can talk about the quarterback for a long time, but we've gotta be better around him too."

Smith, however, believes he has a role in that. He may only be a sophomore and may not even start against Miami, but Smith wants to be more of a presence.

"I really think I need to step up and be a leader for this team," Smith said. "Whether I start or not next game, I just need to step up and be a leader."

Avery Williamson is probably the most consistent player on the roster in that regard, but losing is a test of his leadership.

"It hurts a lot," Stoops said. "It kills me and I gotta keep my head up and be a leader. I gotta show these guys that I'm not going to give up. And I'm not going to give up. I've gotta keep the young guys up and keep fighting."

Saturday was unquestionably a setback, but the staff isn't wavering.

"We've got 12 one-week seasons, so we're on to our next week," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "That's what our approach is and we've harped on the players to look at it the same way. Now we're on to week two and we're going to try to get better and try to win that one."

The Cats have bought in.

"When you keep doing the right thing over and over and you just keep the little things right and doing what Coach asks, good things are bound to happen," said Raymond Sanders, who rushed for a team-best 98 yards. "We just gotta keep pushing and keep believing."

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