Off to its best start since 2007, the Kentucky football team continued preparations for Saturday's road test at one of the nation's most hostile environments, LSU.
Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) faces another stiff league test when it ventures to Tiger Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff Saturday on the SEC Network.
Following Tuesday's practice inside the Nutter Fieldhouse, UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown talked about UK's improved focus after a "lackluster" week in preparing for ULM.
"We had a really good practice today, had a lot of energy, a lot of focus," Brown said. "I told you after the game we were a little lackluster last week in practice. Got away from some details. Really I thought going into that South Carolina game, we really prepared well and really played with a lot of discipline, a lot of details. Some of our negative plays last week in the Monroe game were due to some fundamental errors, not paying attention to details. We got back to that today, had a really good practice. Focus was good, energy was good."
The Wildcats will be facing a challenging threat in a menacing Death Valley crowd for a night game against the host Tigers.
"Our guys are excited about the opportunity to go down and play in Tiger Stadium, Death Valley," Brown said. "LSU is about what you'd expect. They're big, fast, strong."
LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) is coming off a 30-27 win at Florida last Saturday. LSU is averaging 101,460 per home game inside Tiger Stadium in 2014.
"They're the most talented secondary we've played," Brown said. "They've got some youth there, but they are really talented. They've got guys that will play for pay and play for a lot of pay. So we've got our hands full, but we're looking forward to it. What? 7:30? 7:30 kick. Let's see if we can go down there and get our sixth win."
Alexis Jennings has big shoes to fill in more ways than one.
Yes, UK Hoops is looking to replace departed post plaers DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- two of the most productive players in program history.
But the 6-foot-2 true freshman forward has been following in hallowed footsteps her entire life.
Her mother, Tracy McCall, is a former professional basketball player and one of the best players in the history of the University of North Alabama.
Jennings hasn't shrunk from her strong basketball heritage. She's seemed to take on every challenge she's faced in the game in excelled so far in her career.
To date, she has lived up to, if not exceeded, the expectations one might have of a player from such a distinguished pedigree.
"My mom has always motivated me to be the best player I can be," Jennings said. "She's been there. She's in the Hall of Fame at UNA, where she did great things. I see myself as following on her path."
Jennings was rated the ninth best high-school post player in the nation and the No. 64 overall prospect class of 2014 by ESPN.
She was named 6A State Player of the Year and the 2013-14 Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year in Alabama after she led Sparkman High School to the state championship, averaging 22.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 3.2 steals with an 81-percent free-throw shooting percentage.
So perhaps the challenge of stepping in and contributing at a perennially elite team right away isn't that daunting for Jennings.
"I want to come in right away and make an impact," Jennings said. "I will have a role to fill, and I want to do that to the best of my ability."
Jennings chose UK largely because the team's style of play seemed to fit her game.
"Alexis is an extremely versatile post player who possesses all of the characteristics we look for at Kentucky," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She is strong, athletic and skilled. Her ability to run the floor was attractive to us.
"Alexis has 3-point shooting range which will stretch the defense and she can also put the ball on the floor and get to the basket to score. She is hard-nosed and tough on the defensive end and she will be very effective in full-court press situations. I am thrilled Alexis chose Kentucky. She will be a significant player here."
When asked to describe her style, Jennings seemed to agree with her coach.
She made it a point to mention her ability to run the floor, but asserted that her post game was her strongest asset.
"I'm a versatile player," Jennings said. "I like to run, and I think I'm more effective in the open floor. I think I'm very strong down low and I can step back and shoot the 3."
So Jennings' game seems to fit Mitchell's up-tempo, pressure defense-based playing style, but she chose for Kentucky for reasons bigger than just basketball.
"I came here because it's a family-oriented program," Jennings said. "And its been evident since we started practicing. Players like Jennifer O'Neill have taken me under their wing. She's made me feel like I'm sisters with everyone on the team already. She's been here a while, and I can count on her to give it to me straight. Every practice she encourages me."
So far things seem to have gone smoothly for Jennings, but bigger stages and bigger challenges await.
In terms of stage it won't get much bigger than Friday's Big Blue Madness.
It was an NFL Week 6 that saw UK's alumni post a combined record of 8-2-1. Garry Williams of the Carolina Panthers partook in the NFL's first tie of the season, which also happened to be the highest scoring stalemate in NFL history. Williams and the Panthers matched the Bengals 37-37 on the road in Cincinnati.
Sunday against the New York Jets, Danny Trevathan of the Denver Broncos reinjured the same knee that sidelined him for the Broncos' first three games of the season. The linebacker's MRI revealed a fracture in the bone just above his left knee.
Larry Warford, an offensive lineman who claims to have never touched a live ball during a single game of his entire football career (save for a recovered fumble while playing defense in seventh grade), almost made that dream a reality Sunday. Warford, at 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, ran his first route as an eligible receiver Sunday in a win over the Minnesota Vikings. However, the trick play was flushed out early and Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions was sacked before he could find Warford downfield.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (4-2) For the seventh time this season, Randall Cobb was able to find the end zone on the receiving end of an Aaron Rodgers pass. Cobb finished the day with five catches for 58 yards, and the Packers defeated the Miami Dolphins 27-24. Cobb's seven total touchdowns are good for No. 2 in the NFL.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (4-2) Stevie Johnson matched Cobb's five-catch total, totaling 53 yards on Monday Night Football. Although Johnson failed to score a touchdown for the first time in three weeks, the 49ers defeated the St. Louis Rams 31-17. Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-4) Avery Williamson came up huge for the Titans in their second win of the season. With less than five minutes remaining and the Titans up 16-7, the Jacksonville Jaguars were rapidly approaching the Tennessee red zone. However, Jags wide out Cecil Shorts III fumbled the ball, allowing Williamson to make the recovery and race 41 yards downfield. The highlight play complemented a three-tackle performance, and the Titans won the game 16-14.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-4) Alongside Williamson, Wesley Woodyard tallied six tackles of his own in the Titans victory. Woodyard was responsible for four solo tackles, while two more came as assists.
As it turns out, it's pretty good for a football team too.
Under Mark Stoops, the UK program has established an open floor for communication. When there's a mistake, it's corrected. When a player makes a bad decision, he hears about it.
Stoops has a simple explanation for how that's been accomplished.
"Well, there's no place to hide," Stoops said at his weekly press conference on Monday.
Bad habits, with Stoops in charge, are exposed, and it's not just the coaches doing the correcting. Players -- from senior leaders to first-year freshmen -- have become empowered in policing themselves and the result is a culture of accountability that's been a driving force behind UK's 5-1 start entering a trip to LSU this weekend.
"The players gotta understand they can't be naive, and that's what helps with some of the things we're doing, whether it be peer evaluations and different things," Stoops said. "We don't want to create a culture where they can hide anywhere."
As much as Stanley "Boom" Williams may have wanted to climb into a hole and hide last week, that culture wouldn't let him. Along with three teammates, Williams was suspended for the South Carolina game following an on-campus incident. After the suspension was handed down, Williams had to face his teammates in a formal setting and own up to his actions.
"We did some things amongst the team that holds that accountability at a pretty high level where they had to address the team and talk to the team and not just, 'hey, I'm sorry,' or any of that," Stoops said. "They came into a team meeting and sat and addressed it with their teammates"
Williams returned to the field against ULM, setting up a field goal with a 75-yard return of the opening kickoff and rushing for 104 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He was happy about his performance and getting to play again, but Williams remained contrite nearly two weeks after the original incident.
"I learned a lot," Williams said on Saturday. "You just gotta be real careful with your decisions and the things that you do, knowing that you're a valuable player to your team. I just wanted to come out and play hard. I owed it to the team, the fans and the coaches, so I just wanted to come out and show those guys that I do want to be part of the team."
That accountability applies on the field as well.
As an example, Stoops said on Monday that an unnamed player will be suspended for the first half of the LSU game following what he called a "foolish penalty" against ULM. Stoops doesn't want to extinguish the fire that often leads to those kinds of in-game mistakes, but there's balancing to be done.
"We just need to constantly preach being unselfish, and you know, I want aggressiveness," Stoops said. "I want them enjoying it. We're always (toeing) that fine line of, you know, letting the guys be who they are."
Stoops, Peveto to reunite
This offseason, former UK special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto took the same position at LSU. It marked a return to Louisiana for Peveto, who spent the previous eight years in the state at LSU and Northwestern State.
Even though they no longer coach together, Stoops and Peveto have remained close.
"He always sends texts, and we communicate back and forth throughout the year," Stoops said, "Bradley Dale has been a close friend of mine for a long time, and we'll continue to be."
As luck would have it, Stoops and Peveto will reunite in their first year apart when UK travels to Baton Rouge, La., for a game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Stoops says UK has a different set of signals this year, so Peveto being on the other sideline isn't a concern in preparation. However, he doesn't expect to do much communicating with his friend this week.
"I don't think we'll talk much this week," Stoops said. "Maybe he'll send me over some crawfish to the hotel or something."
UK-Mississippi State to air on CBS
For the first time since 2007, UK will host the Southeastern Conference's marquee television game.
On Monday, CBS selected Kentucky-Mississippi State for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on Oct. 25.
"You know, that's great," Stoops said. "Obviously I'm not going to get ahead of myself. But every time you win in this league, you're going to put yourself in position for a bigger game."
The two teams are among the biggest surprises in college football this season, with MSU ascending to No. 1 after a third straight win over a top-10 team on Saturday over Auburn and UK sitting at 5-1. As exciting as the matchup between the two may be, Stoops won't spend much time thinking about it this week.
"So I think it's a compliment to our team what we've done to this point, and I know, you know, every game gets bigger and we have a huge one at LSU this week, and that's what's on our mind," Stoops said.
Stamps, Miller expected to be available at LSU
Safety A.J. Stamps and left tackle Darrian Miller each played sparingly in the second half against ULM, but Stoops said on Monday they were held out for precautionary reasons. Both are expected to play this weekend.
Marcus McWilson (15) and Fred Tiller (3) celebrate McWilson's pick-six. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The UK football program has five wins and one loss in mid-October. For all the storylines surrounding the Wildcats 48-14 win over ULM on Saturday, UK's win-loss record is the biggest.
Kentucky is 5-1. The same program that won two games each of the past two years.
The numbers are straightforward, but given UK's recent history they warrant mentioning, if not deeper analysis.
And the Wildcats are agonizingly close -- a missed call and three overtimes close -- to having six wins and no losses.
Still the Wildcats are 2-1 in league play and tied for the lead in the loss column in the Southeastern Conference East division.
After Saturday's win, UK is now just one win away from being bowl eligible.
And yet the architect of UK's emergence as a competitive team in the nation's best football conference is not getting ahead of himself.
"It feels good, it does," head coach Mark Stoops said after his team's fifth win of the season. "I'm proud of team and how hard they worked. It's not just those six weeks. It's everything that they've done since we've been here to put ourselves in position."
The Wildcats did not play their best in Saturday's win. Just as they didn't do the week before in a perception-changing win over South Carolina. Or the week before that vs. Vanderbilt.
That the Wildcats have been able to win when not at their best is the sign of a team turning the corner. In other words, Stoops' team has found ways to win.
"I think we're seeing us win some games even when we're not playing our best," Stoops said. "It's not like we're out there playing above what we can do. We really feel like we can play a lot better, and that's the good news." Defense reversing turnover deficiency
UK is in the midst of a severe turnaround in just about every aspect of the game when compared with last year.
The defense is no exception, and perhaps the greatest example of that is illustrated in the turnover battle.
The Wildcats forced three turnovers on Saturday, and have taken the ball away from opponents 16 times this year, tied for eighth nationally.
UK had 15 takeaways all of last year.
Even Stoops, who is beginning to reassert at UK -- just as he did at Florida State -- his credentials as one of the best defensive minds in the nation, did not foresee such a quick turnaround it terms of his team's ability to win the turnover battle.
When asked if he would have believed at the start of the year that his team would tied for fourth nationally in balls intercepted (11), Stoops answered honestly.
"No, I don't think I would have believed that," Stoops said. "I'll give you, it wasn't that. Got to be honest there, I don't know if we'd have been (fourth). I'd be lying if I told you that the other day.
UK ranks second in the SEC behind Ole Miss in balls intercepted, a far cry from the three it picked last year -- which ranked tied for dead last (119th). Offensive numbers tell a skewed story
Much was made about the return of the Air Raid offense under offensive coordinator Neal Brown when Stoops began naming a coaching staff in late 2012.
Plenty of sirens have rung out in Commonwealth Stadium, especially in 2014, upon the scoring of UK touchdowns.
After a 48-point performance vs. ULM, UK has scored at least 45 points three times on the year, its most 45+ point games in a season since 2010.
But Brown's unit was not immune from criticism after a third straight performance which he himself called "inconsistent."
The Wildcats earned a field goal on their first offensive possession on the strength of a long kick return by Stanley "Boom" Williams, but were forced to punt, threw an interception, missed a field goal and had to punt on their ensuing four series.
Still UK finished with 48 points. The scoreline was indicative of a game in which UK scored two defensive touchdowns.
But the story wasn't all doom and gloom for the UK offense, despite some worrying metrics.
For example Brown, like many hurry-up offensive coordinators shoots for his teams to get in around 80 snaps per game. UK fell more than 20 plays short of that on Saturday, but upon deeper examination the numbers didn't tell the whole story.
"It was a weird game," Brown said. "Our returners did a really good job, we scored two defensive touchdowns so I think the stats are skewed. I don't think we necessarily played as bad as the stats say because defense took two possessions."
Despite losing some opportunities to let his offense go to work, Brown was taking a team-first attitude when it comes to defensive scores.
"I'm all for that," Brown said. "If they want to score two touchdowns I'll trade 15 plays for two touchdowns every time. The stats are a little skewed in I think our number of plays and our time of possession just because of the way the game played out. It was a weird game."
College football in 2014: anything can happen?
The world of college football might as well be turned on its head.
Yes the sport that is as popular as it is largely because of how unpredictable it is. But in a season that now has two Mississippi teams ranked inside the AP top three in mid-October, with top-ranked Mississippi State notably ahead of an undefeated and defending national champion Florida State, anything can happen.
So it bears mentioning again that Kentucky is tied for first place in the SEC East.
UK's next game is Saturday against LSU in Tiger Stadium.
After experiencing a slight hangover on the heels of an emotional 45-38 victory over South Carolina a week prior, Kentucky found itself down by 11 points to ULM a third of the way through Saturday's second quarter.
Unable to find the end zone all afternoon, the Cats' offense appeared stagnant while backed up to their own 17-yard-line. It was then that senior wide receiver Javess Blue --who had yet to score a touchdown all season after battling a string of injuries --was ready for a change.
"I was looking toward the end zone," Blue said. "I mean, I had to get it. That's the first touchdown, so I had to make it happen."
The very next play, Blue sprinted down the visiting team's sideline. Despite his defender drawing a flag for pass interference, Blue was able to connect on a Patrick Towles pass that landed near UK's 38-yard-line. The rest of the play was history.
"At first, I thought I was going to be out of bounds," Blue said. "That's the reason I jumped for the ball and made sure I stayed in bounds. Then, I saw out of the corner of my eye Garrett Johnson make a great block --a great block. Without him, I probably wouldn't (have) scored."
Thanks to Johnson, Blue had only one defender standing between him and 55 yards of green. Blue accelerated around his only remaining obstacle, coasting into the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown reception. With the catch, Blue became the only player in school history to record two receptions of at least 83 yards. Blue, who led the Wildcats in receiving yards as a junior, made an 88-yard catch against Miami (Ohio) last season.
Blue's explosiveness makes him a threat to score on any given play. In fact, Blue's record-setting touchdown reception wasn't even the best catch he made on Saturday.
Once Kentucky turned the game around and led ULM 24-14 midway through the third quarter, Blue made what Towles called the best catch ever made from one of his own passes.
"I was telling those guys on the sideline, I was in shock --not in shock because he can make plays like that --but it was awesome," Towles said. "When I throw a ball like that, and I can have a guy make that kind of play for me, it's great. It's great."
Battling a one-on-one matchup in the end zone, Blue extended one arm, bobbled Towles' 21-yard pass, and snagged the ball with his right hand and shoulder pad. The 6-foot JUCO transfer secured the catch and fell in-bounds for his second touchdown of the contest.
"What was going through my head," Blue said, "was that I had to make the catch. It was either that or I get yelled at from a coach... I just squeezed the ball tight and prayed that I was in-bounds, basically."
The remarkable display astounded even Blue himself.
"Yeah, I (was surprised) at first," Blue said. "I was like, 'Where's my other arm?' Then again, I had to think about it. Cornerback has my (left) arm, so I just had to reach for (the ball) with my right."
After a promising first season in a Kentucky uniform, Blue was forced to sit out the entire offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. He then sprained his ankle in the season-opening win over UT-Martin, causing him to miss both the next game versus Ohio, and play limited snaps in UK's lone loss at Florida. Upon his return, the Wildcats have an element of explosiveness that no other player brings to the table.
"It's like I'm back right now," Blue said. "So, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be making more plays as time goes on."
Blue finished the game with three catches for 109 yards. His outstanding playmaking ability has the Cats (5-1, 2-1 SEC) in position for bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
"That's an amazing feeling," Blue said. "We couldn't get to a bowl last year, so we had made it a goal... That's what we promised the fans, so we're making that promise a reality."
Bud Dupree had 1.5 sacks and a blocked field goal in UK's 48-14 over ULM on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree had seen the look too many times not to know exactly what was going on.
Through the first three seasons of his Kentucky career, Dupree had never played on a winning team. When something went wrong, the Wildcats couldn't weather the storm. Instead, they shut down.
Seeing beginnings of the same reaction as ULM built an early lead on Saturday, Dupree wasn't about to stand idly by.
"Once you see guys start holding their heads down, you don't play football," Dupree said. "That's not a team we are anymore, holding our head down when we get beat."
There Kentucky was, trailing to the visiting Warhawks. The energy in Commonwealth Stadium during an upset of South Carolina just a week prior was gone. After ULM scored to move ahead 14-3 on the final play of the first quarter, Dupree gathered his teammates and delivered an impassioned message,
"If you get beat, so be it," Dupree said. "You gotta go on to the next play. I was just emphasizing moving on to the next play and executing the calls. No matter what our coach calls, just execute it. If you think he's wrong, just do it anyway. Just play with your head on fire and just play hard."
Taking a cue from their senior leader, the Cats responded in a big way. UK would pitch a shutout the rest of the way, scoring the final 45 points in a 48-14 victory to move to 5-1.
"Once again, it wasn't the prettiest thing early, but our guys hung in there," Mark Stoops said. "Faced a little adversity, and came up with some big plays on both sides of the ball when we needed it."
Even before his speech in the huddle, Dupree was making more than his share of those big plays.
Seemingly the only defender coming out with the intensity Stoops demands, Dupree had half a sack, another tackle and a blocked field goal even as ULM built that lead in the first quarter. If not for him, that early hole would likely have been deeper.
"Bud is an amazing player and a great leader and takes the game very seriously," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It doesn't surprise me that even though others may have been flat that he wasn't. With his leadership, I think everybody else followed."
Dupree finished the game with five tackles, that blocked field goal, a quarterback hurry and 1.5 sacks, moving into a tie for second with Dennis Johnson on the UK career list and adding to his Southeastern Conference-leading total among active players. Clearly, he's always been capable of dominant efforts like the one he turned in Saturday, but the kind leadership he displayed in shaking the Cats out of their post-field-rushing malaise is something he's developed.
"I take it upon myself," Dupree said. "Being a leader of the team, if it's not going well I have to make a play and I have to make sure all the guys are on the same page and worrying about the bad plays that's happening and move on to the good. Once I told everybody to move on, keep on moving on, things started clicking."
No unit clicked better than the defensive line.
To start, Stoops and Eliot dialed up the blitzes that have become UK's signature, especially on third down. ULM, however, was ready to capitalize with slants and other quick-hitting plays, converting 4-of-6 third downs in the first quarter. Adjusting midgame, the coaching staff elected to drop the linebackers and defensive backs and let the linemen loose.
"Once we started realizing kind of what some of their game plan was ... we started playing some coverage, and that let d-linemen rush, and they had a hard time blocking them," Stoops said.
Using that approach, UK piled up six sacks -- all by linemen or hybrid ends/linebackers, save for a sack Josh Forrest shared with Dupree in the first quarter -- and 12 tackles for loss.
"Well, we did put the d-ends in better positions to pass rush based on what we saw that they were doing," Eliot said. "That happened pretty quick into the game. And after that is when I think we started to get a lot of good pressure."
The good pressure eventually flustered ULM quarterbacks Pete Thomas and Brayle Brown into mistakes, and UK's back-end defenders were ready to capitalize. Josh Forrest and Marcus McWilson each had interception returns for touchdown, giving UK four defensive scores on the season and three in the last five games.
"Obviously, they were big in both games, really at times when we needed them," Stoops said. "For sure in the South Carolina game, but even in this game, it came at the right time. That's nice to see us have the ability to make big plays on both sides of the ball and in special teams."
Forrest's pick-six was particularly timely, coming barely a minute after Javess Blue scored an 83-yard touchdown on a pass from Patrick Towles. On the strength of those two touchdowns and another late in the second quarter from Towles to Blake Bone, the Cats turned that early 11-point deficit into a 24-14 lead in a span of less than five minutes.
"I think it does show some maturity of hanging in there when things don't go well," Stoops said. "Keep on battling, believing in each other and believing in what we can do on both sides of the ball and special teams."
In spite of that belief, a complete game still eludes the Cats.
Blue had his long touchdown and another one-handed 21-yard score sure to make the SportsCenter Top 10 and Stanley "Boom" Williams had 179 all-purpose yards, including a 58-yard touchdown burst, but UK had just 352 yards on 59 plays. Towles was mostly efficient, completing 16-of-28 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns, but missed on some chances, while the ground game never got going outside of Williams.
"We weren't as consistent as we needed to be," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "At the end of the day we got done what we needed to get done. We didn't have a great week of practice. We didn't handle prosperity overly well, but with all that said we're 5-1 after six games."
That's the first time a Kentucky team has been able to say that since 2007. And to take things a step further, the Cats now find themselves in a four-way tie for the SEC East lead in the loss column, to which Stoops said, "I love it. I love it. Let's go."
In spite of all that, Dupree sees unrealized potential in his team heading into a trip to face LSU next Saturday.
"I don't even think we're close," Dupree said. "Last week we had a bad week defensively. This week we came out slow. It better be this week. It better be this week so we can go out and get a win."
Dupree, no doubt, will take an active role in pushing his teammates to make that happen.