UK takes on Vanderbilt at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's long wait between games hasn't been any fun.
For two weeks, the Wildcats have had to stew over a triple-overtime loss at Florida. They've thought over and over about all the things, big and small, they could have done to turn a defeat that came by the slimmest of margins into a signature win.
On Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Cats finally get to take a shot at washing away the sour taste that's stayed with them for too long.
"This is a great opportunity for us to go out and showcase what we have (done) over the break that we had, to make up for the mistakes that we had during the Florida game and to show that we fixed it," Bud Dupree said.
In Dupree's mind, UK's defense against the power run game is where the most unshakeable mistakes happened. The Cats allowed 237 rushing yards in the 36-30 loss, the majority coming on simple runs by the bruising Matt Jones, who piled up 156 yards and a touchdown.
With that in mind, Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) is a fitting next test for UK (2-1, 0-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. Under first-year head coach Derek Mason, the Commodores use the same big sets with multiple tight ends and extra offensive linemen that have been staples in Stanford's ascent among the college football elite in recent years.
"It used to be that spread offensives were unique and now it's kind of the other way," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we've got to make sure that we're playing sound."
As much of a throwback as the style may be, the Commodores are about much more than brute force.
"There's more to it than just lining up with an extra big body in there and an extra tight end and things like that," Mark Stoops said. "(People) think it's all just about power and things like that (but) they're creative in what they do, in creating extra gaps, and there's most definitely some very effective play-actions off that. That was evident this past week where they were able to get some good yardage out of some runs and also hit some play-actions off their big heavy sets."
The combination of power runs and play-actions helped Vanderbilt put together its best performance of the season in a 48-34 loss against South Carolina, rushing for better than five yards per carry and gaining 379 total yards. The Commodores built an early lead on the No. 14 Gamecocks and nearly pulled off the upset behind two kickoff return touchdowns by Darrius Sims.
"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."
On defense, Vanderbilt returns much of a front seven that allowed just 262 yards in a 22-6 win over Kentucky last season, though the Commodores have switched to a 3-4 system anchored by defensive tackle Adam Butler and linebacker Caleb Azubike.
"The thing that sticks out is they got a lot of returnees up front on defense --defensive line, linebackers," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're new in the secondary, but those guys up front really gave us issues last year. They're big."
Vandy uses that size, first and foremost, to stymie the ground game. Brown, with his deep and talented backfield, refuses to concede that UK won't be able to run effectively, but he knows that's the Commodores' aim.
"That's their style of defense," Brown said. "Coach Stoops and Coach Eliot have gone to a very similar style and it's hard to run the football. They take away your edges. They do a really good job at Stanford playing against the run and they've done that well. If we have to throw the ball then we have to throw it."
With Patrick Towles at quarterback, throwing the ball hasn't been a major concern for Brown.
Towles is coming off an outing in which he threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in his first road start. As he builds experience, he only figures to improve.
"He's giving us a chance, there's no question," Brown said. "He's done a good job. Can he be better? Absolutely. Can he do some things fundamentally better? Absolutely. Am I pleased with his progress through three games? Yes."
The same is true for UK's receiving corps. The group has combined for four touchdowns through three games, all of which have been scored by true freshmen.
"They're getting sharper on their routes and they're also getting smarter," Towles said. "That comes with experience. They've played three big-time college football games, so they've recognized what works and what doesn't work and they're starting to cut off some slough. It's really, really helping."
UK will rely heavily on those young wide receivers on Saturday as the Cats look to end a 17-game SEC losing streak that dates back to a win over Tennessee in the final game of 2011. Included in that streak is a pair of defeats to Vanderbilt, the first of which came two years ago by a final tally of 40-0.
The Cats don't deny those things are on their mind, but their primary focus is narrower than that.
"We just need a win," Towles said. "We've got that bad taste in our mouth from Gainesville and we're working every day so we do get that win. An SEC win is important. We haven't had one in a while. But that's going to come. We're just going to try to do everything we can to win this football game on Saturday."
UK reached the midpoint of its preparations for a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
The Wildcats haven't played a game in more than a week with an open date over the weekend, but their energy isn't suffering because of it.
"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around, communicating, playing fast. It was a good, physical full-padded practice, so we were pleased with the work ethic today."
UK is focusing more time than normal preparing for a physical Commodore ground attack, particularly considering the 237 yards the Cats allowed at Florida. Vanderbilt will put that work to the test with sets featuring as many as three tight ends and an extra offensive lineman.
"It used to be that spread offenses were unique and now it's kind of the other way," Eliot said. "You just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we gotta make sure that we're playing sound."
With only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, UK's scout team has had to adjust.
"We've just had to do it (to) the best of our ability with guys that maybe play running back, guys that maybe play big wide outs and the tight ends that we do have," Eliot said. "Try to simulate that pro-style offense."
Each week throughout the fall, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the upcoming 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
First up is redshirt senior Kayla Hartley, a native of nearby Versailles, Ky. One of two captains on the 2014-15 team, Hartley talks about the team's fast start to preseason practice, helping the freshmen transition to life at UK and her excitement about coming back for one more year.
As the school year begins, so does the UK gymnastics team's preseason training. We've been practicing for a week and a half now, and it's been the best start to the season I've seen in my five years as a Wildcat. I feel like everyone has come in prepared and ready to go. We always want a fast start in the fall, as it makes the spring season easier because you're ready, and feel confident walking into an arena knowing you're going to hit your routines. Right now in the gym, we're working on getting the routines down. As preseason progresses, we'll slowly start perfecting these routines, and the faster that happens, the better our scores will be in the spring. Of course, it's always fun getting great scores.
Our fast start to the preseason was definitely evident with a 100-percent passing rate on this year's conditioning test. I was so happy to see everyone pass this year, I knew it would set the tone in the best way possible for the season. The conditioning test is the first time the team really comes together as one, supporting and cheering each other on. Knowing that we're all in this together helps push each other along. For the upperclassmen, we know the conditioning test is only the beginning of a season of conditioning. The conditioning test is time to show the freshmen that coming together and supporting each other will really help make preseason and all the conditioning a little easier. The way I see it, as a big family unit we suffer (conditioning mostly) together, we survive (conditioning again) together, and we succeed together (winning, or for the conditioning test, passing).
Not only can you see it in the conditioning test, but the notion that everyone feels they have a place on the team is a great sign. Everyone comes in knowing they have a job to do and they are going to do it. Breaking records is always fun but not as fun as actually making the goals. Our goal is always to make it the nationals. Last year Audrey Harrison made it and this year we want to make it as a team for the first time in program history. Everyone agrees that we can do it, we just have to stay on track and get ready and down to business.
We have an equal distribution of upperclassmen and underclassmen, which is going to be a good thing for this team. In the past we have mostly been a young team still learning how to compete. This year we have plenty of upperclassman leadership that will help the freshmen make the transition into the demands and expectations of being a Division-I student-athlete. Upperclassmen will be able to help the freshmen handle all the particulars of being a student-athlete with little tips we've learned along the way. Things like getting more study hall hours in on off days rather than on Thursday nights, when everyone is trying to get those last few minutes, and learning the back roads to avoid traffic and getting to class and practice on time are some of those tips that I've told the freshmen to make their first semester in Lexington easier.
I'm really excited for the opportunity to come back for one last season. I'm looking forward to being with these girls and competing with them all for the first or the last time. I'm ready to break more records and make history with this team, doing the sport I love, wearing the blue and white and competing in my home state. I'll always bleed blue.
The Kentucky football coaching staff made it clear after UK's three-overtime loss to Florida that the program would not accept moral victories.
With a bye week to regroup and refocus, the Wildcats hit the Tim Couch Practice Fields on Tuesday with good energy and excitement as they prepares for their Southeastern Conference home opener on Saturday against a improving 1-3 Vanderbilt team.
"Really good energy (at practice today)," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Our guys are excited about getting out there and playing, which I think is positive. They got the Florida game behind them and they're ready to go. Excited about the buzz that I think our fans have generated for this game. I know we've sold a lot more tickets for this Vandy game."
Brown had nothing but high praise for the Commodores, who are in their first season under head coach Derek Mason.
One thing not new for Vandy this season is its defensive front with two of its top three sack leaders returning in senior Kyle Woestmann and sophomore Stephen Weatherly, who both moved from the line to outside linebacker this season. Senior Vince Taylor was the team's starting tackle last season and has moved to nose tackle this season with 13 tackles with a quarterback sack and two fumble recoveries.
"Vanderbilt's much improved. I think they're getting better each week," Brown said. "We know, going through this last year, that anytime you have a new staff it takes you a little bit longer. The thing that sticks out is they got a lot of returnees up front on the defensive line and linebackers. They're new in the secondary, but those guys up front really gave us issues last year. They're big."
Just like any game, a key to UK's success offensively will be the decision-making of starting quarterback Patrick Towles. Brown said the staff has put a lot on Towles so far this season with the sophomore answering the bell each time.
Towles said he is concerned about improving and getting Kentucky better, not about what other teams are trying to do to slow the UK offense down.
"We are worried about us," Towles said. "We are going to execute what Coach Brown tells us to execute, run or pass ... Coach Brown tells us that our game plans are not these extravagant game plans, they are simple stuff that we are good at and can execute. With these young guys, they have been executing the game plans during practice and that has really helped out."
On the injury front, Brown said offensive lineman Zach West, who has missed the past two games with an injury, did practice some Tuesday but Brown did not say if he would play Saturday. Brown said wide receiver Javess Blue and running back Braylon Heard, who missed the Ohio game due to injury, are close to 100 percent and has liked what he has seen out of them the last few weeks.
Facing Florida on the road, Kentucky embraced its role as the underdog.
Even though few predicted they would hang with the Gators, the Wildcats played well in the Swamp and came within one play of scoring the upset in a triple-overtime defeat.
Two weeks later, it will be UK that's expected to take care of business on its home field against Vanderbilt. In spite of the role reversal in the minds of the experts, Mark Stoops wants his team's attitude to stay the same.
"I don't pay much attention to it," Stoops said. "But certainly need to be a team that's very hungry. I think our team has played that way this year. We need to stay that way."
If last week is any indication, staying hungry won't be an issue.
With an open date over the weekend, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) combined early preparations for Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 SEC) with plenty of fundamental work. On Monday, the Cats will return to the practice field ahead of Saturday's noon matchup on the SEC Network.
"We were very good all week," Stoops said. "We had a good, solid week, good energy. We talked about it last Monday, really all week, just to do more, prepare better, be more effective in what we're doing, get things cleaned up. So we'll see where we're at this week. They had the weekend off. I'll be anxious to get with them here this afternoon and start our preparation for a game week."
Vandy, playing its best game of the season over the weekend, gave UK plenty to prepare for. The Commodores built an early lead on No. 14 South Carolina before falling at home, 48-34.
"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."
Vandy struggled out of the gate, dropping its first two games against Temple and Ole Miss in blowout fashion and falling behind 14-0 against UMass. The Commodores would come back to beat the Minutemen before going toe to toe with the Gamecocks behind true freshman Wade Freebeck.
Freebeck was slated to play on Saturday in a quarterback time share, but took over on a full-time basis when Patton Robinette suffered an injury. Freebeck is one of a nation-leading 31 freshmen who has played for Vandy so far this season.
"It will be interesting to see who goes for them," Stoops said. "I think you could see some real talent in the freshmen. A guy that we knew from St. Thomas High School (in Davie, Fla.), a very good football player, a great program. He's going to be a special player. Their older guys are good players, too. ... It doesn't matter, their offense doesn't change much."
Derek Mason is in his first season as head coach at Vanderbilt, but the offense the Commodores run is similar to the one Stanford used during his time as defensive coordinator at Stanford.
"It's a challenge," Stoops said. "I go back to my time at Arizona. Just the great respect I had for the Stanford program. Very fundamentally sound. Very tough at the core of who they are."
That toughness manifested itself in the running game on Saturday, as Vandy averaged better than five yards per carry.
"They do a lot of creative things with big sets," Stoops said. "That was helpful for them against South Carolina. You could see they're starting to build more and more into their package. They create some big problems from the run and pass with big sets."
Regardless how Vandy chooses to attack UK, Stoops believes his team will be prepared.
"It's the next game on the schedule, so it's the most important one," Stoops said. "We'll be excited to play."
UK 'close to 100 percent' after bye
Few teams reach week five of the season close to full strength, but UK is close thanks to an early bye week.
Running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue played through ankle injuries at Florida, but both are expected to be healthy for Vandy. Zach West, nursing a neck injury, is expected to practice on Monday. He joins wide receiver Jeff Badet as "question marks" for Saturday, while wide out Alex Montgomery is "close" as he builds muscle strength in his recovery from knee surgery.
The annual campout for Big Blue Madness tickets just won't stop getting bigger.
A year after the 2013 edition obliterated the previous record, Tent City grew to an unprecedented size on Friday. At the final count of 2014 -- as control cards were being distributed at 2 p.m. -- approximately 770 tents had surrounded Memorial Coliseum in hopes of securing tickets to the highly anticipated madness event, topping the previous record mark of 755.
Though campers are finished moving in, the party goes on. Friday night at the madness campout is typically the most festive of the week the Mother Nature appears wiling to cooperate with a perfect weather forecast.
We'll have more from the campout this evening, so stay tuned.