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Notebook: Toughness on the rise as UK prepares for Georgia

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Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Saturday matchup at Georgia. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Saturday matchup at Georgia. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was plain to see that Mark Stoops was frustrated after Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt on Saturday. He saw many of the mistakes and missed opportunities that had plagued the Wildcats in their previous close losses and was growing tired of the feeling.

But by Monday, Stoops had come to realize that his team isn't the same one that dropped tough road games at South Carolina and Mississippi State.

"I think you're starting to see more accountability on this team as guys understand us and start understanding that whether it's off the field or little things, it all matters," Stoops said on Monday, "and I think we're starting to get some leadership."

That leadership translated on the field, as Stoops was more pleased with his team's overall effort than he has been at any point this season, in spite of the 22-6 final score.

"I thought last week was as good as we've played all year with that mentality, a toughness and a desire and a hunger across the board to go out and win," Stoops said.

The Cats were particularly sound on defense, holding the dangerous Commodores to 313 yards of total offense, the fewest for a UK opponent in Southeastern Conference play this season. Vandy's first touchdown of the game came on a short field following an interception and the only other on a fourth-down jump pass with less than a minute left.

"Defensively definitely our best outing since we've been here," Stoops said. "I thought we really did some good things and played well."

UK didn't execute quite as well offensively, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

"I thought we played very hard," Stoops said. "On either side of the ball, and in special teams, we're not always the smartest and we don't always execute everything perfectly, but I thought for a team effort, that was as good an effort and the attitude was right and the fight was right, and that's something that I'm proud of and happy to see."

Stoops feels Bulldogs' pain after Auburn loss

Georgia played in arguably the game of the season over the weekend, falling in heartbreaking fashion at Auburn.

The Bulldogs mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback, rallying from a 20-point deficit to take a 38-37 lead in the final minutes behind start quarterback Aaron Murray. Georgia was a play away from sealing the upset on the next drive, but Nick Marshall's downfield heave on fourth-and-18 deflected off the hands of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and to Ricardo Louis for a game-winning touchdown that will be on highlight reels for years to come.

"You know, that was an extremely tough loss," Stoops said. "I mean, unbelievable to see the way they battled back and to take that lead and to have an opportunity to win. That's what I was so impressed with."

In a bus on the way home from Nashville, the Cats watched the crazy finish.

"Unbelievable effort by that team, and you see the leadership with Murray and the talent around him to come back and take that lead and really--I'm sure they're sitting there kicking themselves, should have won," Stoops said.

That sympathy, however, only extends so far as UK prepares to travel to Athens, Ga., for a game at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday.

"It'll be another great challenge for us, a team that's led by a terrific quarterback, fantastic running back (Todd Gurley)," Stoops said. "They're a big, physical, athletic team across the board. It'll be a good challenge, and looking forward to getting out there and playing again."

Recruiting signs still positive

Since Stoops and his coaching staff arrived nearly a year, they have made waves on the recruiting trail.

It started with a 2013 signing class that was the highest-rated ever for Kentucky according to and has continued in 2014. Due to NCAA rules, Stoops can't comment specifically on unsigned prospects, but he continues to be pleased with the way UK's message is being received on the trail.

"I feel very good about the way things are going in '14 and off to a good start in '15," Stoops said. "You know, makes me very optimistic about the future. I think we're recruiting some great leaders, some great young men that will help our program."

But even if those two classes come together as Stoops believes they will, the work isn't done. In his words, "It takes time."

"So I think you see our freshman class this year being very good," Stoops said. "I think you know the '14 class is going to be a very good class. It's going to be a great class. And I anticipate those guys having a good impact on our program.

"Then you let them grow up a little bit and you let them get another year older and you bring in another good class on top of that, possibly a couple (junior-college) guys here and there, and you start putting together a very good team."

In talking at length about years to come, Stoops caught himself. He refuses to sacrifice the present for UK football's far-off future.

"I like our locker room," Stoops said. "We're improving. We're going to improve it next year, and we're going to improve it the year after that. We're building. We're going to win, and I can't tell you when, but I hope it's this week."

Update on 'banged-up' Cats

Like any team in mid-November, Kentucky is far from full strength entering this weekend's game.

TraVaughn Paschal is doubtful and Khalid Henderson will play in his place at weak-side linebacker. Cornerback Nate Willis is also doubtful, so UK will start Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller at the two corner spots.

The Vandy game was a tough one for the UK offensive line, as both Kevin Mitchell and Darrian Miller exited with injuries. Stoops, however, anticipates that both will be available. The same goes for wide receiver Ryan Timmons, who was limited to "four or five plays" by ankle injury.

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