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Even through moments of frustration, Stoops undeterred

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Kentucky fell to Missouri on Saturday afternoon, 48-17. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky fell to Missouri on Saturday afternoon, 48-17. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops' passion was on display during Kentucky's 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.

The first-year head coach prowled the sideline, letting officials and players alike know when something displeased him, and in no uncertain terms. In the halftime locker room, he delivered remarks that were, by all accounts, quite spirited.

Considering his successful background at Florida State and UK's 2-7 record, frustration is understandable on the part of Stoops. But don't even consider interpreting a little fire as a sign that it's all getting to Stoops.

He knew what he signed up for and is undeterred.

"I'm going to go back to work and stick to the things that I feel are necessary to help build this program," Stoops said. "I may get frustrated, but I'm not discouraged."

The frustration doesn't stop with Stoops.

It extends to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who watched as Missouri's big, physical wide receivers took advantage of their matchups with smaller UK defensive backs. Former top-ranked recruit Dorial Green-Beckham was the headliner -- catching four of Maty Mauk's five touchdown passes -- but he wasn't the only factor.

"Sometimes they make the plays and you don't make them," Eliot said. "Whether that's talent or whether that's just not finishing, it's tough."

You can also count offensive coordinator Neal Brown among the ranks of the frustrated.

UK, after a stand by its defense, marched down the field on its first drive for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Following a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Wildcats were positioned to put the ninth-ranked Tigers on their heels when they took over just 45 yards away from the end zone.

Instead, UK gave up a second-down sack and punted.

"Where we are as a program, we've gotta capitalize on those things," Brown said.

The players are feeling it too, including quarterback Jalen Whitlow, but they also echo Stoops' sentiment that they aren't backing down.

"I'm not discouraged, because I know what we did wrong," Whitlow said. "It's always good to know what you didn't do wrong or what you didn't do right. So I'm not discouraged by any means. We've just gotta be better."

As coaches delivered their impassioned halftime calls down 28-3 to show some of that improvement, Whitlow listened. When UK came out of the locker room, he proved that he's not one to yield.

"I was proud of Jalen," Brown said. "I thought he came and answered the bell. We challenged the group at halftime and he came out and showed some leadership."

Still playing through pain due to a banged-up shoulder and ankle, Whitlow led scoring drives on two of UK's three third-quarter possessions. On the game, he carried 24 times for 44 yards -- including the 41 yards lost on seven sacks -- and a touchdown and completed 17-of-27 passes for 225 yards in spite of being in visible discomfort for much of the afternoon.

"I'm just putting it all on the line," Whitlow said. "Whatever, the team needs, I'm going to try to fulfill that role."

At this point, UK needs leadership more than anything else out of the sophomore. His play in cutting Missouri's lead to 35-17 late in the third quarter was a dramatic example of just that.

"This group is hungry," Brown said. "On offense, we are starving for somebody to take the reins. I thought he showed some toughness today and I hope that carries over."

Stoops noticed the same thing.

"You could tell he was hurting, and again, I think he's learning to compete," he said. "I thought he did some good things, and he led our team good."

Early in the season, Whitlow and Maxwell Smith split time, even within individual series. Eventually, the staff decided to move past the two-quarterback system and turn to Whitlow. Injuries briefly undid those efforts, but Whitlow is now trying to make up for lost time and become more than just a leader by example.

"It's always good for the quarterback to be a leader," Whitlow said. "Working on becoming more vocal. Guys see that I lead and try to do everything right, but I'm just day by day trying to get better at being more vocal."

No matter how vocal Whitlow becomes as he settles in at quarterback, he won't replace Stoops as the primary voice of Kentucky football. Over the coming days, that voice will be singing a familiar tune, but one that remains powerful.

"It's hard, but you've just got to go back to work, and you've got to stick to what I preach all the time, and that's getting better," Stoops said. "I've got to get these guys up. We've got to get them mentally prepared to practice on Monday and to prepare, and to go out there and compete and try to win a game. That's what I'm going to do."

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