Neal Brown was just finishing his breakdown of Kentucky's loss to top-ranked Mississippi State.
The Wildcats had come up just short in a hard-fought defeat, but Brown praised the way UK battled.
"We're close," Brown said. "We gotta continue to get better. We gotta find a way to get number six."
Six wins, of course, is a significant number. In college football, it means bowl eligibility. For a UK program that hasn't appeared in a bowl game since the 2010 season and won a total of just four games in the previous two years, reaching postseason play would be significant.
Even so, that's not what the UK coaches are talking about when they mention number six.
"I don't think that's the reason why we need to go get number six, even though we know the value in it," Stoops said. "I think the reason we need to get number six is because we're sitting on five."
Kentucky's next shot at that sixth win will come on the road against Missouri at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Tigers (6-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) are in the thick of the race for the SEC Eastern Division title after winning it a season ago.
"Look at what they did last year, sitting here 6 2, and they probably feel a lot like us, in that they haven't played their best yet," Stoops said. "You know, they're a very good team. They've won, they've been there before, they're an experienced group, especially as a coaching staff." Special teams improved in defeat
UK's final play on special teams against Mississippi State wasn't pretty.
Down 38-31 after Patrick Towles ran for his second touchdown with 2:31 left, the Cats lined up for an onside kick. The try went directly to Christian Holmes, who promptly sprinted 61 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
The play, however, doesn't come close to defining UK's overall performance on Saturday.
"Special teams responded extremely well," Stoops said. "I thought the guys competed and played very good this last week."
On the heels of a loss as LSU in which special teams were largely responsible for a big halftime deficit, UK's specialists were solid.
Following kickoffs, UK started on its own 21.9-yard line on average, while MSU started on its 23.6, not counting the onside kick. In the punting game, Landon Foster kicked six times for an average of 47.8 yards, three times pinning the Bulldogs inside the 20 and allowing just three return yards. His net punting average of 47.3 was two yards better than Devon Bell's for MSU.
"The kickoffs were great, the kickoff kicker it was ridiculous how high and how well he kicked the ball so that makes it extremely difficult but across the board I thought the guys responded," Stoops said. "None of us were happy with the week before. We know that's not acceptable. Coach (Craig) Naivar knows that and our players but we have all had our moments this year, offense and defense and special teams where we have not done our part."
Ground game a work in progress
UK has always been a running-back-by-committee kind of team this season, but never has that been clearer than on Monday.
On Kentucky's updated depth chart, Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams are listed with "or" between each.
It's a departure from previous weeks, when Heard and Kemp were listed jointly, but practice this week won't be any different.
"It's been like it has been," Stoops said. "Not much has changed. We need to continue to work some of those guys in."
Against Mississippi State, Horton carried just once after playing well at LSU. Expect to see more of the big freshman at Missouri.
"We had plans last week with Mikel (Horton) and then he goes in and fumbles the first play and that rattles your confidence a little bit," Stoops said. "We've talked about that, we can't let it. We need to get him back in there and get him playing and we will. Mikel has worked his way into the rotation and he needs to get in there."
If all goes according to plan, the same will be true for Williams. The dynamic freshman missed the Mississippi State game with a head injury, but is expected to return this week.
"He should be fine," Stoops said. "Let's hope he doesn't have any setbacks. He was very close (last week) and I don't want to get into all that, technically he probably could have played but we didn't want to."
No matter who lines up in the backfield, UK needs to improve in the ground game. Over the last two weeks, Wildcat running backs have combined for just 82 yards on 29 carries, though a lot of that has to do with tough LSU and Mississippi State defenses.
"We're still trying to be the team that we want to be," Stoops said. "We're not there yet. We want to be a team that's balanced."
Senior Day set for noon kick
Television selections for games on Nov. 8 were announced on Monday and Kentucky's home finale vs. Georgia will kick off at noon ET. ESPN will broadcast the game.
Patrick Towles had 477 total yards and four touchdowns in UK's loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Patrick Towles has never lacked confidence, but even the sophomore quarterback admitted he was shaken in a loss at LSU last weekend.
His steady hand, though in a losing effort, was back on Saturday against Mississippi State.
"I really just went after it," Towles said. "There was kind of a whole timidness down in Baton Rouge with the whole offense that was absent today. We ran into a really, really good football team who's going to win a lot of football games."
That football team - which happens to be ranked No. 1 in the country -- was too much for Kentucky to handle, in spite of a valiant effort by the Wildcats. In a back and forth battle that saw the Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) deliver multiple blows likely to spell the end for UK, the Cats (5-3, 2-3 SEC) kept battling back before falling, 45-31.
"We got beat by a better football team," head coach Mark Stoops said. "Give Mississippi State credit. They're a very good, strong, tough football team. Deserving of the No. 1 ranking that they have. I appreciate our team's effort. We did not play well enough to win, to beat the No. 1 team in the country."
Whether Towles played well enough individually to beat the No. 1 team in the country is up for debate.
His statistics were eye-popping. Combining his 390 yards passing, 76 yards rushing and one reception for 11 yards, Towles had a hand in all but 27 of the 504 yards the Cats gained in playing what Neal Brown called his signal caller's best game.
"Patrick competed," Brown said. "He competed. Really excited about how he raised his level. He's had two weeks where--Monroe he played so-so, last week not very well and to bounce back against the No. 1 team in the country."
He also did against the player many consider to be the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.
Towles, at least in the box score, out-produced Mississippi State's Dak Prescott with 477 total yards, four touchdowns and zero turnovers to his counterpart's 304 total yards, three touchdowns and one interception, though he was hardly concerned about that.
"I'm worried about the defense and our defense is worried about him," Towles said. "I was worried about winning the football game and we didn't get that done."
Towles was hell-bent on leading his team to a win, and every fan among the 64,791 in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium could see it plainly.
"It's a mindset you have to have every game: Go out there, do everything you can to win," Towles said. "Whatever Coach Brown or Coach Stoops asks of me, it's my job to do whatever I can to win the football game."
On this night, Towles was called on to carry the load not only in the passing game, but also as a runner. Disregarding the 47 yards he lost on six sacks, Towles ran 17 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns as UK's backs were able to find little room against the defensive front seven Brown called the best the Cats have faced all season.
"We got some good looks, good ideas watching their film," Towles said of his role in the run game. "They're kind of susceptible to it and those looks kind of carried over, obviously, to the game. So it worked early so we kept doing it."
In the passing game, Towles showed no signs of wear from the hits he took running the ball. He completed 24-of-43 passes for a career-high 390 yards and two touchdowns, including a couple plays that made his offensive coordinator's jaw drop.
"There's some 'wow' throws," Brown said. "That throw he threw to Javess Blue, that's a wow throw. ... He's got big-time arm talent."
The pass to Blue was certainly worthy of a "wow."
After Mississippi State scored with 4:44 left in the third quarter to claim a 31-17 lead, Towles dropped back three plays later and delivered a strike that traveled more than 40 yards in the air and his Blue in stride, leading to a 58-yard touchdown.
"We got a good look," Towles said. "The safety rotated wide and Javess was able to split them. I put out there and he was able to run under it."
Drops were an issue at times for UK's wideouts, but they made plenty of plays for Towles too, perhaps most notably one that came in the first quarter.
Down 7-0, Towles threw downfield to Demarco Robinson along the right sideline. In one motion, the senior jumped to snare the ball and shook two defenders before sprinting for a 67-yard score. All the while, he tip-toed the out-of-bounds line so closely the officials had to review the play to make sure he stayed in.
"Great play," Towles said. "Great play after the catch. I kind of threw him a little bit too far inside. He made two people miss and took off. He's a great player. We're lucky to have him."
Towles had plenty of big plays in him the rest of the way, but he never could get the Cats over the top.
Once in the third quarter and again in the fourth, UK took over trailing by only a touchdown after a defensive stop. The two drives were the Cats' only two three-and-outs of the second half.
"We just didn't make plays," Towles said. "That's the whole thing tonight. We got opportunities to make plays but we didn't."
Even after a career night, Towles was hard on himself. Along those same lines, Brown took encouragement from the fact that there were simple ways Towles could have played better.
"He was a decision here, a decision there from having a really big day," Brown said. "And the thing that's he's gotta learn is--and listen I'm proud of him, this is the best he's played so I'm nitpicking here, but he's gotta take what's easy. Take what's easy and not try to force the big play."
If Towles and the Cats improve the way they know they can, they might come away the victor the next time UK plays in a high-profile matchup such as this one. For now, the Cats will have to take some solace in the way they bounced back from that LSU loss.
"We knew that we could play with anybody in the country," Towles said. "I'm not sure the country knew that we could play with anybody in the country, but we fought like knew we would."
By no means is that enough.
"It's nice to see the improvement, for sure, but we're not happy with the way the game came out," Towles said. "We're in the business of winning football games, not competing in football games. So we'll get better and we'll get after Missouri on Saturday."
On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke to the media for the final time before Kentucky's matchup with Mississippi State.
Once again, the UK coaching staff left the practice field happy with the Wildcats' work.
"Guys have been good all week," Stoops said. "We've had good energy and good practices, so hopefully we'll get a few mistakes cleaned up. Seems like we have, and looking forward to a great game here Saturday."
A great game and, if Stoops is right, a great atmosphere as well.
Asked about the opportunity to play against the nation's top-ranked team at home, Stoops repeated that he's excited to take the field in front of a big crowd at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, I think we're starting to create a great environment at home and we're looking forward to that, so obviously, always a lot nicer playing at home than at some of these venues in the SEC," Stoops said. "It's pretty challenging. So hopefully we'll get some good home-field advantage and it will help us."
Mississippi State's ranking has added to the anticipation for Saturday's game on the part of fans, but the No. 1 next to the Bulldogs' name only means so much to coaches and players.
"A big game's a big game," Stoops said. "You kind of feel it in the air and the energy and the practice and the focus, so they're really all big games. Once you get to the point where we're doing what we're doing and trying to win a bunch of games, then they're all important. We've got a tough stretch and this is our next one."
Patrick Towles and Kentucky will look to bounce back from a loss at LSU against No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's loss at LSU stung, no doubt.
The Wildcats, for the first time all season, simply weren't competitive in a blowout in Baton Rouge, which turned out to be even more painful than being one play away as they were in a defeat at Florida.
That said, Patrick Towles wasn't about to let the loss linger. He knew the Cats had to get over it.
"It took me about a day," UK's sophomore quarterback said. "It hurt for about a day. Then if it keeps hurting, you gotta play a different sport."
Towles and his teammates are sticking with football, and it's a good thing because the nation's top-ranked team is coming to Lexington this weekend. UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will host No. 1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC) at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in front of a CBS audience watching at home.
"They've had some impressive wins and they're playing outstanding football," head coach Mark Stoops said. "We're looking to improve this week and eliminate some mistakes if we're going to go out there and compete with a great Mississippi State team."
Calling Mississippi State's wins "impressive" may be somewhat of an understatement. The Bulldogs, No. 1 for the first time in school history as of Oct. 12, became just the fifth team ever to topple three straight top-10 opponents by taking down No. 2 Auburn on Oct. 11 on the heels of wins over No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 8 LSU.
As Stoops said, the Cats have improving to do to compete with a team the likes of Mississippi State. Correcting mistakes has been a priority in practice this week, but Stoops is just as focused on his team's confidence after its first and only lopsided loss of 2014.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well, so now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting," Stoops said. "And it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
By all accounts, the Cats have handled their business in preparing for Mississippi State, striking a balance between learning from their mistakes and moving on from them.
"I think there's a lot of learning points, especially where we're at," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video. Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
The Bulldogs, so far this season, have specialized in forcing miscues by their opponents.
Having built leads of at least 20 points in all six games this season, Mississippi State has had to defend the pass an inordinate amount this season. Consequently, the Bulldogs are last in the league in pass defense, allowing 308.3 yards per game. On the flip side, the Bulldogs are second in the SEC in both sacks and interceptions per game.
"They'll have the best front seven that we've played all year," Towles said. "They're strong. They're the No. 1 team in the country, so they're really good everywhere. We've gotta be sharp, be disciplined and pay attention to details to succeed."
Attention to detail might be even more important on the other side of the ball for Kentucky.
There, the Cats will have to contend with Heisman Trophy frontrunner Dak Prescott. The junior quarterback has been nothing short of dominant, ranking second in the SEC in total offense and fifth in rushing yards. He's accounting for an average of 23.0 points per game -- third nationally -- with his 14 passing touchdowns, eight rushing scores and one receiving touchdown.
"He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country," Stoops said. "He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
That stress, more than anything else, stems from Mississippi State's incredible offensive balance.
The Bulldogs are first in the SEC and No. 10 nationally in total offense at 529.7 yards per game, and they do their damage running and passing in nearly exactly equal measure. Mississippi State has piled up an average of 264.3 yards on the ground and 265.3 through the air.
"That's a credit to what they're doing schematically and a credit to their coaching staff and obviously a very talented group," Stoops said. "I guess it's fair to say it's a little bit unlike anybody we've seen in recent history here. So very balanced and like I said, they present a lot of problems because they can certainly be as physical as they want to be but also have the ability to spread you out and throw it around, too."
In spite of the challenges Mississippi State will present on both sides of the ball, Stoops knows little else will matter if the Cats don't come ready to play.
"I think because we got whupped and because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Demarco Robinson was a bright spot in UK's loss at LSU, catching three passes for 52 yards. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Kentucky fans have been outspoken in their appreciation for head coach Mark Stoops and his ability to recharge the program with high-level athletes.
The influx of youth has surpassed all expectations throughout the first seven games in Stoops' second year at the helm. And despite a 41-3 letdown at Louisiana State Saturday night, this young team is still holding onto a 5-2 overall record.
It's hard to imagine UK starting the 2014 nearly so well without Demarco Robinson, a player who came to Lexington before Stoops' talent infusion.
"Demarco's a really good player," said sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles following Tuesday's practice. "He's been here; he knows what works, what doesn't; he's quick and he's strong for his size and he makes plays on the football. It's nice having him out there."
The numbers do not necessarily to jump off the page, but Robinson led the Kentucky receiving corps in Saturday's loss with three catches for 52 yards. In fact, he was one of the only players among the skill positions to earn praise from the coaching staff following the disappointment in Death Valley.
"There were some times, like Demarco Robinson got open a lot," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Tuesday. "And there were some times some other people got open. But Demarco, he won more of his battles than anybody else."
His speed, quickness and attention to fundamentals has helped Robinson rank second on the team with 20 catches for 306 yards on the season while averaging 71.6 all-purpose yards per game as a starter at wide receiver and the team's top punt returner.
And while the on-the-field production may be appealing to box score fanatics, the statistics pale in comparison to the daily leadership Robinson brings to the locker room.
"I'm the leader of the wide receiving corps because I'm one of the oldest guys," Robinson said. "I've been through a lot in my time here and I've played against a lot of guys in our league in either high school or college."
Just as any adept leader would, Robinson came off as a bit a bashful in his response when asked to talk about himself. He is an unselfish teammate who, in his senior year, brings an invaluable set of intangibles to a group of young receivers that do not hesitate to look to him for guidance.
Freshman wideout Garrett Johnson came off the practice field on Tuesday with yet another update on Robinson's role as a leader.
"Today I was just out working on some routes during practice and he was right there kind of critiquing me on the fly," Johnson said. "A lot of times we'll sub in and out and as he is coming in he's telling me what I did wrong on the route and giving me tips to improve. And that's an everyday thing with him. He challenges the rest of us to be all-in with everything."
Possibly the most difficult challenge of the entire 2014 season awaits Kentucky this week as the nation's top-raked team rolls into town. The Cats will take on No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
College football experts, as well as previous opponents, have raved about the Bulldogs' front seven. However, not much has been made of the MSU secondary, which is giving up 308.3 yards per game in the air as the Bulldogs have built big leads of at least 20 points in every game this season.
This could be a perfect opportunity for Demarco Robinson and the rest of the Kentucky wide receivers to come up big against Mississippi State.
So what is the message from the senior to the rest of his team?
"Step up," Robinson said. "It's a big game so you've got to show up to the party."
As much as he may have wanted to, Neal Brown couldn't just throw away the tape from a blowout at LSU on Saturday.
Even though it's a painful reminder, there's too much to be gained from looking back at the loss for a young Kentucky team.
"If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video," Brown said. "Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
UK began the business of correcting those mistakes on Monday and Tuesday, with a practice on both days. Some tough coaching has resulted, but it's all geared toward preparing the Cats to play their best game on Saturday against Mississippi State.
"When we met yesterday, we were hard on those guys because we've got to be better," Brown said. "In those type of games and those type of atmospheres, we've got to be better. Why did things go wrong? Here's why, now let's go out and fix them."
The issues on offense, according to quarterback Patrick Towles, were across the board. UK, however, is on their way to fixing them.
"We just didn't really make plays," Towles said. "The coaches can call a perfect play, but you need to execute. We didn't execute at any level at any position, which you're going to get beat by everybody if you don't do that. We executed really good today. We'll build on that tomorrow so come Saturday we're ready to rock."
The Cats don't have much choice about whether to be ready if they want to win with the top-ranked Bulldogs coming to town. Both Brown and Towles said Mississippi State's defensive line and linebackers represent a challenge the likes of which UK has not yet seen, even against LSU and Florida.
"I think they've got the best front seven that we've played against, maybe the best in the league," Brown said. "I haven't seen them all yet, but their front seven is very talented, d-tackles, they go four deep there and they're big."
NFL Week 7 pitted six former Wildcats against one another, forcing a jumbled 5-6 record from Kentucky's 11 NFL alumni. Two UK record-holders extended their 2014 touchdown reception total, while two current teammates were each able to force a turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
After putting six points on the board, fourth year Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb was in the midst of a customary Lambeau Leap when one fan shared more of his meal than either individual anticipated. In the end, Cobb walked away with a large ketchup stain splattered across the number of his white shoulder pad, while the fan was left with a plain hotdog full of memories.
Cats in the Spotlight Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (5-2) With his eighth TD catch of the season, Cobb remains the No. 2 scoring threat in the NFL. Backed by Cobb's six receptions for 121 yards, the Packers won their fourth straight in a 38-17 blowout over Garry Williams' Carolina Panthers. Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (4-3) Though Johnson's 49ers were blown out 42-17 on Sunday Night Football by the Denver Broncos, Johnson played one of his best games in a San Francisco uniform. The former Kentucky fan favorite finished with five catches for 79 yards and his third touchdown of 2014.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5) In a discouraging 19-17 loss to the Washington Redskins, Williamson made three solo tackles and two assists before recovering his second fumble in as many weeks.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5) Like his rookie teammate, Woodyard showed up big for the Titans defense (despite the loss). Woodyard recorded seven total tackles (four solo and three assisted), as well his second interception of the year.
Winning five of six to open 2014, confidence was never a concern for Mark Stoops.
After Kentucky's only blowout loss of the season at LSU on Saturday, Stoops knows he needs to think about his team's psyche for the first time.
"You worry about it and we need to address it, because, you know, you're going to go through ups and downs, you're going to lose some games," Stoops said. "When you self-inflict against a good team--and I'm not taking anything away from LSU because they flat beat us across the board, but when you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence."
The mistakes, in a 41-3 defeat, were plentiful.
They started on special teams, where a series of errors played a role in all 27 of LSU's first-half points. The Tigers scored on four offensive possessions before halftime and they started, on average, at the UK 42.8-yard line due to three long returns, a personal foul and a squib kick recovered by LSU. The other seven points came on a punt returned for a touchdown.
"There's mistakes that can and will be corrected," Stoops said. "We've all made our mistakes this year, offensively, defensively, special teams. Again, they're magnified against a very talented team on the road, and when you open the game that way, it doesn't set the tone. That's not what you want. So they're magnified but they're things that can and will be fixed."
The miscues on special teams served to nullify a defensive effort by UK that Stoops says was better than the box score may suggest. LSU piled up 303 rushing yards, but the Tigers needed 51 carries to do it and did much of their damage once the outcome was well in hand.
After reviewing the film from Saturday, Stoops was able to see that.
"I don't think we were physically dominated on the field and, again, you just look at, hey, they ran the ball for 300 yards, you're not generally going to win a lot of games when teams run for 300 yards," Stoops said. "We know that's not acceptable but there are a lot of good, physical plays in there by our defensive guys."
UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will carry that awareness into an important week of practice leading up to a home matchup against Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). To compete with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Cats can't afford to let their confidence slip in the least.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well," Stoops said. "So now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
Stoops has a measure of control over that confidence, but he also knows predicting how the LSU loss will affect his team is an inexact science. Even so, he has a pretty clear idea how the Cats will react.
"I think because we got whooped and had because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Stoops impressed by MSU, Prescott
Mississippi State might not have been at the top of the polls when the season began, but Stoops isn't altogether surprised to see they are now.
The Bulldogs belong.
"They're a very talented football team," Stoops said. "You could tell they had a lot of confidence coming into the season just by the way they carried themselves at SEC Media, just listening to them with their quarterback and leadership."
Mississippi State boasts three wins over top-10 teams, all coming in the three weeks before a . The Bulldogs are last in the league in total defense, but much of that has to do with the big leads they've built in every game they've played this season. Along those same lines, Mississippi State ranks second in the conference in both interceptions and sacks.
On offense, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in total yards behind leading Heisman contender Dak Prescott.
"They're playing red hot and it starts with their quarterback," Stoops said. "He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams suffered an undisclosed head injury during the loss at LSU on Saturday. He returned to Lexington with the team and is now recovering, though Stoops had no timetable on his return.
"Things look better, not cleared to play yet, obviously," Stoops said. "I'll wait until the doctors tell me he can get on the field but, I think, yeah, things are looking better. When he will be cleared to practice or play I have no idea."
Williams took to Twitter on Sunday, a welcome development after the running back stayed on the ground for a number of minutes after taking a big hit on a kick return in Baton Rouge, La.
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
UK fell 41-3 at LSU on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knew his team would face its toughest test to date in Tiger Stadium.
For the first time this season, the Wildcats were unable to answer the bell and a blowout loss was the result. Stoops' appraisal of what had just happened was simple.
"There's not a whole heck of a lot to say," Stoops said. "They really took it to us from the opening kickoff return all the way through the game."
The opening kickoff return went 49 yards and gave the ball to the Tigers at the UK 29 following a facemask penalty, the first of a series of special-teams miscues that plagued the Cats in the first half. By the time halftime came, Kentucky trailed 27-3 in spite of being outgained just 184-135.
"Just got outplayed," Stoops said of special teams. "We got outplayed. We've been solid all year to this point and did not play good enough in this game. Give them credit. That's a good bunch, and they physically played better than us."
In the second half, the Tigers would again exert their will physically, this time in the ground game. Behind 127 yards and two touchdowns by Terrence Magee, LSU (6-2, 2-2 SEC) gained 303 rushing yards in a 41-3 win that dropped UK to 5-2 (2-2 Southeastern Conference).
"This is a physical football team," Stoops said. "That's what we'd like to look like some day. They're extremely long, very physical."
Against that physicality, UK could never muster any consistent offensive production. The athletic Tigers sacked Patrick Towles twice and held him to 19-of-36 passing and 146 yards, a season low. The Cats had even less luck running the ball, gaining 71 yards on 27 carries.
"You get humbled really quick in this league," Towles said. "We were kind of riding high and we kind of got punched in the gut, which happens."
On the heels of the humbling, the Cats will have no choice but to pick themselves up quickly with the next test facing them. Top-ranked Mississippi State, coming off a bye week, comes to Lexington next Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. ET showdown in Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, we gotta go back to work," Stoops said. "We gotta go back to work, and we'll see how we respond. We'll see how resilient we are and how tough we are. I have no reason to believe that we won't respond and go prepare and play well."
Stoops didn't hide his disappointment on Saturday night.
In UK's lone previous loss, the Cats absorbed punch after punch at Florida and were within a play of winning on the road. Two weeks ago, a blowout seemed a possibility as South Carolina built an early 14-0 lead, but Kentucky responded. That kind of fight suggested this team was past the kind of lopsided defeat the Cats suffered at the hands of LSU, but that wasn't the case.
Nonetheless, UK's next step is just the same as it would have been had the Cats pulled the upset.
"We will not let one game define us," Stoops said. "We did not play well. They had a lot to do with that. We'll get back to work this week and see what we can do to improve."