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Stoops sees improvement behind mistakes in loss to U of L

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Ryan Timmons caught three passes for 72 yards in UK's 27-13 loss to Louisville on Saturday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Ryan Timmons caught three passes for 72 yards in UK's 27-13 loss to Louisville on Saturday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
No matter the situation, Mark Stoops won't accept losing.

Even with his young Kentucky Wildcats taking on the nation's seventh-ranked team, Stoops won't change that approach. But that's not to say Stoops can't see positives and growth in his developing program in a defeat to Louisville on Saturday.

"I was proud of our guys' effort," Stoops said. "I felt like we fought, played tough at times, had our opportunities. Disappointed that we didn't make the plays when we needed to."

Following a 27-13 loss to U of L (3-0), Stoops and the Wildcats (1-2) were left ruing missed opportunities in those kinds of situations.

Many predicted that in order for the Wildcats to compete with the high-powered Cardinals, Neal Brown's Air Raid offense would need to light up the scoreboard in Commonwealth Stadium. Instead, the UK defense kept the Cats in the game, particularly in the first half.

Relying much more heavily on looks featuring three down linemen, the Cats didn't allow a first down until U of L's fifth drive. They pressured Heisman Trophy contender Teddy Bridgewater, making the normally unflappable star quarterback uncomfortable by frequently mixing it up. The Cardinals' only points before late in the second quarter came on a field goal following a Jalen Whitlow fumble.

"I was proud of the stops," Stoops said. "I felt like we had a good plan. I felt like our guys were starting to play more aggressive, make them earn their yards. Had a few wrinkles here and there."

With the defense playing at a high level, the offense had an opportunity to give the Cats an early edge with a loud crowd of 65,445 behind them. The Cardinal defense, however, was stout, stymieing UK's two-quarterback attack. Not helping the cause was a serious case of the drops on the part of Wildcat receivers.

"Those are drive killers," Stoops said.

Drops were a major issue during spring practice, but not as much of late with the infusion of a talented group of young wide receivers and a lot of work, most notably catching tennis balls following every practice.

"It was just lack of focus," freshman Ryan Timmons said. "We had a good week of practice. Those dropped balls, we make in practice. Like I said, we have to try to be more consistent from practice into the game."

Those drops played a significant role in UK's troubles on third down. The Cats failed to convert a third down in 13 attempts.

"We just didn't make routine plays," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We were poor on third down. No argument there. But where we lost the game was on first down. We had drops, missed opportunities."

Counted among those missed opportunities are UK's turnovers.

All told, UK gave the ball away three times to Louisville - twice on fumbles and once on a Whitlow interception. The aforementioned Whitlow fumble directly led to U of L's first points, while the other two turnovers ended promising UK drives and essentially took points off the board.

In the final minute of the first half, the Cats had driven into the red zone in response to a Louisville touchdown that put the Cardinals up 10-3. But on first and 10 from the U of L 14, Maxwell Smith and Raymond Sanders couldn't execute a hand-off on a run-pass option play.

On UK's next drive, the Cats were looking to orchestrate a response to a U of L touchdown drive to open the second half. Maxwell Smith began the drive at quarterback, but went to the sideline with a shoulder injury that sapped his velocity and Whitlow took over. On third and nine from the Cardinal 28, the athletic sophomore escaped the pocket, but forced a pass deep that was intercepted at the two-yard line.

Taking over exclusively for most of the second half, Whitlow had good and bad moments. For the game, he completed 8-of-17 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown and added 37 rushing yards, though the two turnovers were costly.

"Jalen did some good things and obviously made some critical errors," Stoops said. "He's not unlike a lot of our players. It's hard to swallow when you're the quarterback and he's very visible. He can't afford to make those mistakes. We need to get that corrected."

Correcting mistakes was the theme of Stoops' postgame comments, particularly for the numerous newcomers on which UK is relying.

No one doubts the ability of Javess Blue (six catches for 58 yards and 133 return yards on Saturday), Ryan Timmons (81 all-purpose yards) or Jeff Badet (three catches for 44 yards). Each of the first-year players has big-play ability that can't be taught. But adjusting to the speed of the college game, embracing blocking responsibilities and focus make them all works in progress.

The same goes for Jojo Kemp, who led UK in rushing yards for the second game in a row with 80, needing just five carries to do it.

"He played a different gear, and he earned himself more playing time," Brown said. "There's no question."

However, it's on Kemp to match that effort on the practice field from now on.

On the defensive side, UK integrated so many more defensive looks in large part to get more snaps for freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher. He responded with four tackles and some solid pass rushing, but Hatcher was not without a few uneven moments of his own.

"We love Jason," Stoops said. "He's going to be a very good player. He's a young guy. He's out there. He went through some growing pains a little bit. He did some very good things, but he did some things that he'll get better at."

With so many young players and even UK's veterans learning under a new coaching staff, it's only natural that there is much work ahead. Even so, the growth from two weeks ago during a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky to now is impossible to miss, even for a coach as focused on winning as Stoops.

"I think we're better," Stoops said. "Same thing I told them. If we continue to do that, just go to work, just get better, next week is a bye week, we'll watch the film, clean things up on Monday. We'll practice hard Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to get better. They'll be off for the weekend to heal up. Only long break they'll have. We got to get better. ... I believe they will. We're going to continue to make strides and move in the right direction."

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2 Comments

I think Mark Stoop has greatly improved our football team. I also think UK wildcats play very well sense Louisville is ranks#7 I was pleased with how they played despite the ball drops. I can see a major difference in the team. Go Wildcats!!You all are awesome keep up the hard work!!
Peace out

Please be advised that The University of Kentucky official school colors are, Royal. Blue and White. There is no black on the list

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  • Henry Wyatt: Please be advised that The University of Kentucky official school colors are, Royal. Blue and White. There is no black read more
  • Tim Hollen: I think Mark Stoop has greatly improved our football team. I also think UK wildcats play very well sense Louisville read more