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Stoops calling on improving Cats to play smarter

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Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Homecoming matchup with Alabama State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Homecoming matchup with Alabama State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
More than halfway into Mark Stoops' first season as head coach, effort is no issue for Kentucky. The Wildcats have continued to show up at practice and in games, no matter the circumstances.

But even though UK has shown improvement through that consistent effort, wins have been difficult to come by. The Cats have lost five games in a row, most recently at Mississippi State when their comeback bid fell just short.

Four days removed from the 28-22 defeat, Stoops is still stewing over it. Having watched the tape -- and probably more than once -- he still sees the hard work that has defined his team, but far too many mistakes as well.

"After going back and watching the Mississippi State game, I thought we did some very good things in that game, gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game," Stoops said. "Felt like our players competed extremely hard. We need to be a smarter football team."

From day one, Stoops didn't hide from the enormity of the rebuilding task facing him and his program. He recognizes the strides that have already been made, but he also sees players reverting at inopportune moments.

"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you're under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface."

Stoops had specific plays in mind in saying that, namely a handful of the 10 third downs Mississippi State converted and the successful onside kick UK had nullified by an offsides penalty. His frustration bubbled to the surface as he described them to the media assembled for his weekly press conference on Monday.

That also won't be the last time he brings them up.

"We'll watch those critical mistakes as a team," Stoops said, "not just an offense and not just a defense like we normally do, but the whole team will watch critical mistakes and plays that are not very smart. We need to play better."

Stoops acknowledged that confidence could be playing a role in the miscues that continue to cost UK so dearly. Unfortunately for the Cats, the success that it takes to build confidence is difficult to come by in the SEC.

"There's no gimmes in this league," Stoops said. "So anybody that's trying to rebuild a program will tell you that the best way to rebuild and get that confidence is get some wins. Well, they don't exactly give those out in the SEC."

This weekend, UK will step outside the SEC for its final nonconference game of the season. The Cats will host Alabama State (6-2) for their annual Homecoming Game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, but the Hornets -- who play in the FCS's Southwestern Athletic Conference -- will present plenty of challenges of their own.

"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well."

Alabama State has won six straight games after starting 0-2, largely on the strength of that running game. The Hornets feature two backs who have 740 or more rushing yards, including former Georgia standout Isaiah Crowell. Crowell has rushed for 833 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season at Alabama State.

"We recruited him quite hard during my time at Florida State," Stoops said. "I remember him. He was a fantastic player, one of the top players in the country coming out of high school, fantastic player, just very hard runner, elusive. For his size and strength, he's elusive."

Because of Alabama State's talent and Stoops' approach, UK won't treat Saturday's game any differently than the ones it just played against four consecutive conference opponents.

"This is the next game for us, therefore it's extremely important," Stoops said. "I think anybody that thinks that we can just roll out there because we're an SEC team and think you're going to roll out there and win this game, you're sadly mistaken."

Stoops has no reason to think his players will feel that way.

"I wouldn't think our players would feel overconfident about anybody we're playing I wouldn't think, and we'll address that," Stoops said. "But no, we've taken the approach, we're worried about ourselves.  I can see our players doing that. I think we're trying to get better as a program."

Whitlow to start at QB

After coming on only for second-half spot duty against Mississippi State due to an ankle injury, Jalen Whitlow is back at the No. 1 spot on the depth chart UK released on Monday. Stoops said Whitlow also sustained an injury to his AC joint in his shoulder, but "should be fine" to play.

As long as Whitlow is cleared to play by the medical staff, Stoops wants his sophomore quarterback to take a lead from Connor Shaw and Johnny Manziel, who played through pain last weekend and led South Carolina and Texas A&M to victories.

"I see it as a guy that's leading the program in the SEC and I see other SEC players banged up and leading their team to victory, don't you?" Stoops said. "That's what we need to do."

Game vs. Missouri set for noon kickoff

The SEC released kickoff times and television information for conference games on Nov. 9. Kentucky's home game against Missouri will start at noon ET and will be televised on either ESPNU or FSN.

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