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.
Karl-Anthony Towns and his UK teammates handed out pizza to eager fans on Thursday night at the Big Blue Madness campout. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Since 1950, 201 Avenue of Champions has served as the home of Memorial Coliseum. This week, though, thousands of UK fans have made the address their own temporary home as they anxiously await the ticket distribution for Big Blue Madness.
Tickets will be made available to the public Saturday, Sept. 20 at 7 a.m. at the Memorial Coliseum ticket office and online at Ticketmaster.com. But for the fans that have been living out of the estimated 770 tents -- an all-time record -- lining north campus sidewalks, the pecking order has already been determined.
At 5 a.m. on Wednesday it was a frantic pursuit for the finest camping spots that the University of Kentucky has to offer.
Shane Johnson of Seymour, Ind., who is a first-time Big Blue Madness camper, illustrates the scene as something far more than chaotic.
"It was like seeing as a crowd of people running hysterically from a tornado," Johnson said.
Like Johnson, Many Cats fans arrived days in advance as they lined Avenue of Champions, Rose Street and Lexington Avenue. The daily grind of life outdoors may take some getting used to, but it is all worth it in the end for the hottest free ticket of the year among the Big Blue Nation.
Rick Osborne, who made the trip from Harlan County, said his family has multiple spots in line.
"This is a family event for us," Osborne said. "But you certainly could not get an experience like this with all the other fans without camping out. Don't get me wrong, there are hardships that come with it, but it's too good of a time to not come out here."
And getting to spend a week with the 2014-15 Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams making consistent appearances has to be at least worth the price of admission, right?
"It is really nice to just be around them," Johnson said. "Seeing them go to and from class and having them stop by to spend a little time with us fans, it's great. We get to see them on the court once the season starts, but this is a different experience getting a small look at their lifestyle."
Fans will get a glimpse of what will likely be the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball on Oct. 17 at 7:00 p.m. A month from the annual open practice at Rupp Arena, they're already buzzing.
"After seeing them in the Bahamas last month, my expectations are very high," said Scott Mattingly of Lebanon, Ky. "I knew they weren't going to go 40-0 last year. But this year is different, and I think everyone - all the experts - is scared to give them that same hype. So I'm just excited to see it all play out."
The Cats amassed a 5-1 record during an eight-day span on their Big Blue Bahamas tour against teams from around the world that were made up of primarily professional talent.
So, there is not much the UK faithful does not have to be excited about, and that was once again demonstrated this week.
Look no further than the record-breaking crowd at the annual campout.
These people use their vacation days to take as much as a week away from work. They sleep in tents crammed beside complete strangers. But they all have one thing in common: love for Kentucky basketball.
"There is no other fan base like it. It's special," Mattingly said. "Now that we are all settled in out here, we have all come together to support our team."
Lauren O'Conner had 14 kills and six digs in UK's win over Lipscomb on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
After a sloppy set of opening play to begin Thursday's match with Lipscomb, the Wildcats quickly found themselves staring at a 1-0 deficit on the Memorial Coliseum scoreboard.
Once the set ended and the Kentucky players made their way to the team huddle, senior Lauren O'Conner knew something had to change.
"(The huddle) was a little intense, but we just wanted to focus on the next game," O'Conner said. "This season we've really been focusing on next point, next play, so I've been really excited about that. This match, forget about the last (set), take care of what we need to do, and handle business."
After Lipscomb claimed the first set 25-21, No. 15 Kentucky slammed its foot on the gas and never looked back. The Wildcats woke up and won the next three sets, and none by fewer than eight points.
"Individually, we all stepped it up another level, and we had to focus on some of the players that were going off, like the pin hitters," O'Conner said. "I think we did a good job the rest of the game of putting up better blocks and playing better defense."
Defense, as she and her Kentucky teammates promptly realized, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Lipscomb cruised to victory in the first set by way of a .519 hitting percentage, but finished the next three sets at .047, -.029, and .088, respectively. UK head coach Craig Skinner attributes the opening set loss simply to his team's prolonged period of adjustment.
"Well, Lipscomb is a good team," Skinner said. "We knew that coming in, and they hit .500 in set one. That is partly on us, but partly them. They run a style that is hard to catch up to. It took us a set."
After falling to the Lady Bisons in the first set, Skinner knew the Cats had to make immediate alterations if they wanted to avoid being on the wrong side of an upset.
"We were blocking the wrong shots on their outside hitters, and we had to make an adjustment on that," Skinner said. "We were allowing their middles to score on good passes. Our middles were not jumping with them. But, we had to change the tempo with our serve. We had to drop in some short balls and stuff like that to slow down the rhythm, and that really worked tonight."
On offense, O'Conner led the way. The outside hitter finished the evening with 14 kills, just four shy of her career high, hitting .444 in the process.
"She is a very experienced player, and has a high IQ of the game," Skinner said. "When her offense is going, she is a real threat, and (she) helps balance our attack along all three thirds of the net. She did a great job of that tonight."
O'Conner, typical of a senior leader, was quick to deflect praise to her teammates and the way they bounced back from a forgettable start.
"Morgan (Bergren) put up really good sets and once the second, third, and fourth set came our defense overall got better, which allowed her to be able to position the ball better so everyone allowed me to get the kills that I did," O'Conner said.
With an open date coming on Saturday, Kentucky has no immediate opponent to prepare for.
Instead, the Wildcats are working to improve.
"We had a good practice," D.J. Eliot said on Wednesday. "Harping on fundamentals. Everybody's getting reps and a lot of the younger players got reps all this week and we're just focusing on us, focusing on us getting better and harping on the little things."
For Eliot's defense, that starts against the run.
UK allowed 237 rushing yards - 156 by big back Matt Jones - in a triple-overtime loss to Florida on Saturday. The Gators gained 4.7 yards per carry, often relying on a straightforward game the Cats know they have to be able to stop.
"For us, it was defending the power run game and how quick we read it, how quick we triggered and how physical we were at the point of attack," Eliot said.
If it wasn't Jones doing the damage for Florida, it was typically wide receiver Demarcus Robinson making UK pay in the passing game. He piled up 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant performance, but Eliot saw plenty the Cats could have done about it on film.
"The longest pass he caught went off our cornerback's shoulder pads," Eliot said. "So it was a lot of stuff that we could have prevented, you know what I mean? It was really a lot of stuff that we could prevent. Give him credit. He's an excellent player and they executed some good plays, but what we need to improve on is our assignments and our technique in coverage."
Though there was room for improvement, it's not as if there weren't positives. Florida managed only 20 points before overtime against a UK defense that still hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown.
"Ultimately on defense, you gotta keep them out of the end zone," Eliot said. "You can give up yards and you can not play perfect, but you gotta keep them out of the end zone. And so we've been able to do that this season and in that game during regulation."
Perhaps the best example was on Florida's first drive of the fourth quarter.
Following a Patrick Towles interception, the Gators got the ball on their own 15. They methodically moved the ball downfield, eventually having a first and 10 at the UK 25 and seeming poised to score what would have been a back-breaking touchdown to build on a 20-17 lead.
Instead, the Cats stopped Jones for two three-yard gains and forced a Jeff Driskel incompletion and a field-goal attempt. The Gators would miss and UK would force overtime.
"To do that, you've gotta be good in situations and situations are third-down defense, the red-zone defense, the two-minute defense and those are the things that you have to be successful at - their turnovers - the things you have to be successful at to play good defense and to play good scoring defense," Eliot said.
Mark Stoops made it clear after Saturday's loss at Florida that he wasn't satisfied.
He was proud of his team's effort in the triple-overtime defeat, sure, but he knew there was work ahead.
Three days later, the Wildcats are taking the same approach.
"Attitude's good," Stoops said. "I thought the players really took it to heart, really looked at the film, were very critical of themselves and looked at all areas where we all can improve."
During practice on Tuesday -- the second of this bye week -- the Cats spent time on fundamentals, correcting mistakes from the Florida game and getting a head start on preparation for Vanderbilt. Though the Cats have been appropriately hard on themselves, they're also carrying confidence built on Saturday.
"I think each step, each time you get closer and closer, they believe more and more," Stoops said. "And I think most of them listen to you on Monday and I talked about that going into the game: Let's not come in here and say, 'Boy, that was close. Good effort.' Because we're not satisfied with that. I think each time you get closer and closer you put yourself in positions like that and we keep on working and fundamentally getting better, the next time we get that opportunity we'll win."
Because of the bye week, that next opportunity won't come for another seven days. Stoops would rather not wait for Sept. 27.
"If it was up to me, I think I'd love to go play," Stoops said. "Guys are in good spirits. We have a lot left in our tank. We got a lot more we can do, a lot better things and we're excited to go to work. I wish we were playing, but we'll deal with it the way it is."
On a positive note, the Cats will have an opportunity to recover from nagging injuries. Braylon Heard and Javess Blue, for example, played at less than full speed at Florida with ankle injuries, but they should be back for Vandy and Stoops said UK will be "close to a hundred percent" as a team.
The bye week also affords an opportunity for players the coaching staff is planning to redshirt to see more time in practice.
"Got some of our younger guys a lot of work that are potential redshirts," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Drew (Barker) got a bunch of work today. Thaddeus Snodgrass got a bunch of work. T.V. (Williams), who didn't play as much in the last game, got him a lot of work."
All that's important, but the priority is to get ready for the next test.
"You get guys healthy and stuff, but it's essential we treat this week as a week to definitely improve fundamentally," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Vanderbilt's a good team. They went down to Florida last year and beat the crap out of them, so they're tough. Same front seven last year who gave us a hard time last year are back. We can't afford to take anybody lightly, so we're excited about getting prepared for Vandy like we did today and we'll be ready to next Saturday."