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Cats taking lessons from first two weeks into U of L showdown

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UK defeated Miami (Ohio), 41-7, to move to 1-1 entering a rivalry matchup with Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK defeated Miami (Ohio), 41-7, to move to 1-1 entering a rivalry matchup with Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Heading into the season opener, Kentucky's coaching staff was still getting a feel for how to handle its players.

Seeing the need to build up the Wildcats after a disappointing 2012, the coaches went to work on the Wildcats' self-esteem. The thinking was sound, but after a loss to Western Kentucky, it changed.

"So on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, we practiced really, really hard and we didn't give an inch," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said on Saturday. "I was probably worried a little bit too much about confidence going into that opener and I should have coached them more. That's my fault, and we got that corrected this week."

Instead of trying to manufacture confidence, the coaches elected to let the Cats build it themselves on the field. Responding to more intense coaching from the week of practice, UK routed Miami (Ohio), 41-7.

"Of course it's a big confidence boost, and not just for myself but I feel like for the whole team," running back Jonathan George said. "Defense, they played awesome and pitched a shutout. The offense, we had the opportunity to move the ball down the field numerous times."

So, after rolling up 675 yards of total offense and holding the RedHawks to 122 yards, are the Cats looking forward to a reprieve in practice? Not so much.

"Honestly, I like it," George said. "Obviously it showed great improvements through the first week, so hopefully they will continue to go even harder on us in practice because I feel like it will help the discipline and some of those mistakes that we had, such as the penalties before the snap."

Leading up to UK's annual rivalry matchup with No. 7 Louisville on Saturday, the coaches are more than willing to oblige.

"They thought last week was tough," head coach Mark Stoops said. "We'll be more tough this week. So it's always better to be harder on them after a win."

In spite of how much improvement UK made between its first and second games, there's plenty of room for improvement.

The Cats were consistently haunted by penalties against Miami, committing 11 for a total of 117 yards on the heels of being flagged 10 times for 69 yards against WKU. And after Demarco Robinson went down with an ankle injury on the opening kickoff (his status for Saturday is uncertain), UK committed multiple mental mistakes on punt returns.

"It's just accountability," Stoops said. "We're all accountable. That's just it, not getting ahead of ourselves. We need to improve this week. We need to get better today. We need to watch the film, correct our mistakes from this past Saturday, and move on."

Correcting mistakes will be key this weekend, because Louisville figures to capitalize on most any the Cats make. The Cardinals have been dominant through two games, defeating Ohio and Eastern Kentucky by a total score of 93-14.

"They're a very good team," Stoops said. "They're a top-10 team for a reason, and we'll need to play good on all three sides to win these games. To beat quality teams, you have to play good in all areas."

Drawing the headlines and the early-season Heisman Trophy buzz for U of L is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Forced into action by injury, Bridgewater had his coming-out party two years ago in Commonwealth Stadium and hasn't looked back since.

"He's pretty good," defensive end Bud Dupree said. "He's the number one quarterback in the nation, probably going to be the number quarterback in the draft this year. We just gotta have a good week of practice and preparation preparing for him and the things he can make happen because, you know, good quarterbacks make big plays happen."

Facing a team with as much experienced talent as U of L and in a rivalry game to boot creates a sense of urgency to match some of the big plays Bridgewater will inevitably make. But against WKU, the UK defense learned the hard way that abandoning assignments in pursuit of a turnover or tackle for loss is a dangerous game.

The Cats got that corrected after Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot changed the defensive game plan minutes before kickoff to adjust to Miami's double-slot option. They'll need to put the lessons they've learned the first two weeks into practice under trying circumstances on Saturday.

"We just played assignment football, I think, better this week than we did last week," Dupree said. "Last week everybody was trying to do too much and just be superman on defense when we should have just been doing our job and playing our spot."

Though the emphasis will be executing assignments, Stoops isn't hiding from the magnitude of the UK-U of L rivalry. It's his first time coaching with the Governor's Cup on the line and Stoops has said from his opening press conference onward that beating the Cardinals is a priority.

"Our players need to understand that every week is important, and we will be very systematic in our approach," Stoops said. "But I'm never going to shy away from a big game and a rivalry, let's put it that way. We know it's important."

But, like almost every aspect of his job, that's a balancing act. Stoops knows from experience that motivation only goes so far.

"We've also learned from week one too, trying to get them hyped up and amped up maybe wasn't the answer," Stoops said. "We have to go about our business to prepare to win."

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