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Stoops, Cats looking disappointment of another close loss 'dead in the face'

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After another hard-fought loss, Mark Stoops had yet another opportunity to pick out silver linings.

He could have cited Kentucky's unwillingness to give in after facing a 14-point second-quarter deficit. He could have talked about the way UK played in front of a pro-Mississippi State crowd and had the ball with a chance to score a game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

Stoops, like anyone else who has watched these Wildcats, has seen his team improve, but that's not what was on his mind in the wake of a 28-22 defeat.

"We need to execute better, that's the bottom line," Stoops said. "We have our opportunities, I think. Our team is going to work. Our team needs to improve. We all need to do a better job starting with me and that's the way it is and we'll do that. We're not gonna hesitate. We're gonna go back to work and we've gotta execute when the game's on the line and we're gonna do that."

UK will go back to work with the idea of capitalizing on opportunities the next time a game is on the line, and that's not isolated to the game's final drive when Maxwell Smith's fourth-down pass from the MSU 29 fell incomplete. In fact, it begins all the back in the first quarter.

"Started too slow again," Stoops said. "We tried to combat that all week. We talked about it. We needed to come out strong and execute in the first half on both sides of the ball. Didn't do that. They did."

After UK's game-opening drive stalled, the Bulldogs took possession. On third-and-6, the UK pass rush seemed to have Dak Prescott in its crosshairs for a sack, but he escaped and hit Malcolm Johnson for a 60-yard touchdown.

Mississippi State would go on to gain 291 of its 447 yards in the first half to claim a 21-10 lead, though UK's defense would improve after halftime behind Bud Dupree. The junior defensive end returned to the lineup after missing the Alabama game with a strained pectoral muscle to tally 13 tackles and a sack.

"They do a nice job," Stoops said. "They keep you off balance. Give them credit. They kept us off balance. We didn't do a good enough job in the first half. That's too many yards. They converted too many yards and too many big plays and I thought in the second half we did a better job, were a little more aggressive and made some plays when we needed to."

With that improved second-half defense, UK closed to within 21-19 late in the third quarter after scoring nine points in 1:07 on a safety and a 14-yard touchdown run by Jojo Kemp -- the freshman's first.

Sensing an opportunity, Stoops dialed up an onside kick that Joe Mansour placed perfectly into the waiting hands of Javess Blue. The play, however, was eventually nullified when Daron Blaylock was determined to be offsides.

Once again, Stoops refused to make excuses. He has experienced a great deal of success in his coaching career, so he knows those kinds of miscues represent the razor-thin margin between victory and defeat.

"I thought we had good momentum," Stoops said. "We had the lob set up and it was perfectly executed and somebody on the back side that had nothing to do with the play was evidently four or six inches offsides. So that's the difference. We did not do what we needed to do and that's disappointing."

That disappointment and lack of execution leaves UK with a 1-6 record, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference play. Just as he answered questions from the media with a sense of accountability, he did the same in addressing his players in the postgame locker room.

"We're gonna to look it dead in the face," Stoops said. "It is what it is and it's not OK. We're all gonna coach better. They're gonna play better. We're gonna address these issues and we're gonna get better and we're going to keep on fighting and that's it. End of story."  

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