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."
Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in UK's loss at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops isn't one for moral victories.
But even Stoops, for all his reminders that his tenure will ultimately be judged by wins, had to admit that what he saw from his Kentucky team in a loss at Florida was something special.
" 'We weren't perfect, but it was a perfect effort tonight,' " Stoops said, borrowing a quote from "When The Game Stands Tall," the movie the team watched together on Friday night. "So I really appreciate our players, their commitment to the preparation. They left it all on the field."
As perfect as the effort was, it came up just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss in Gainesville, Fla. In a game that featured more twists and turns than an Austin MacGinnis game-tying field goal, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) came unimaginably close to finally putting an end to a losing streak to Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) that now stands at 28 games.
The outcome was in doubt until Matt Jones ran in the game-winning one-yard touchdown in the third overtime, with both the Wildcats and Gators appearing on the verge of sealing victory on multiple occasions. Seemingly every series of a second half that followed a bruising first half that ended with the score tied 3-3, there was a game-turning play.
Disappointed to have fallen short, the Cats surely spent the flight home to Lexington ruing all the moments that could have made the difference. The most noteworthy was the play that Florida used to force a second overtime period.
With UK leading 27-20, Jason Hatcher tackled Kelvin Taylor for a four-yard loss to set up a fourth and 7 from the Wildcat nine. Receiving the snap just in time to avoid a delay of game, Jeff Driskel fired a pass over the head of Ashely Lowery to Demarcus Robinson -- the only Gator UK never had an answer for -- for a game-tying touchdown.
But for all the plays not made that could have turned the outcome, there were just as many moments that showed exactly how far Kentucky football has come under Stoops' watch.
"I am very proud of them, yes," Stoops said. "Very much, because it's not easy. That's a good football team. I was just very proud of the way we kept responding and facing adversity and coming back and making plays and having a great opportunity to win the game."
It started on defense, where UK held its opponent without a first-half touchdown for the third consecutive game to start the 2014 season. The Gators moved the ball, but Za'Darius Smith and the Cats' physical front seven never wilted as the offense found its feet against a speedy and talented Florida group. Florida only managed a field goal, which UK answered with a gutsy two-minute drill to tie it headed to the locker room.
When the two teams retook the field, it was a whole new ballgame.
"We were trying a lot of things, and we were all scratching and clawing for the best opportunity to stop each other," Stoops said. "The first half it was defense and then all of the sudden there, third and fourth quarter, offenses start moving the ball."
After Patrick Towles threw an interception on the first possession of the second half and Florida quickly capitalized with a touchdown, the sophomore responded in his first road start. He guided back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter, tossing a pair of long scoring passes to freshman Garrett Johnson, who had a coming-out party in his return to his home state with six catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson, however, was but one of six Stoops recruits to touch the ball on offense against Florida. Four more played significant action on the offensive line and eight made tackles on defense.
"That's why we recruited them," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're not scared of this moment. It got loud in there tonight. It got loud. This was a big-time environment. They never blinked and I'm not surprised one bit. I'm zero surprised. That's why we recruited them. That's why a lot of people in the country recruited them."
Towles would later lead the drive that sent the game to overtime. It was a 12-play, 43-yard drive that chewed up 5:10 and eventually set up a 51-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal that first looked good, then appeared to curve outside the goalposts and finally glanced off the upright and through.
"I take my hat off to him," Stoops said of MacGinnis, who made 3-of-4 field goals. "He was clutch. He made some very difficult kicks. I'm proud of him."
Towles seemed poised to turn around and lead the game-winning drive in regulation after the defense came up with a clutch stop.
Pinned deep with a third and 16 on his own one-yard line following a booming punt and an intentional grounding call, Towles calmly dropped back into the end zone and delivered a strike for a first down to Johnson down the middle. Two plays later, he did the same, but the pass glanced off the hands of Ryan Timmons into the waiting arms of Keanu Neal for Towles' third interception.
"I can't put all the interceptions on him," Stoops said. "The one late, down the sideline on third down, that was as good as punt. Threw it up and gave our guy an opportunity to make a play. We had to resort to that a little bit, where we wanted our big wideouts to try to go up and make a play."
More often than not, those big receivers came up with plays. All told, Towles completed 24-of-45 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns to go with 22 rushing yards.
"In here, in this atmosphere. I thought he did a great job keeping plays alive, not taking sacks," Brown said. "I thought he did a really good job running the football when we asked him to do that. I was extremely proud of how he played and it was a big step in his maturation process."
The third of Towles touchdowns was the play of the day for UK and nearly the game winner.
On the first play of overtime, Towles threw in the flat to Stanley "Boom" Williams. The true freshman probed for space, found none and committed what would be a cardinal sin for almost any player in the country, attempting to reverse the field on Florida's defense. For a player of Williams' ability, it proved to be a 25-yard touchdown and the running back's introduction to the SEC.
"Boom's play in the first overtime, that was a terrific individual effort by him to get in the end zone," Stoops said.
Had UK managed a stop on that fateful fourth down, Williams' play would have been the signature moment in the signature win of Stoops' tenure in Lexington. Instead, it's the first loss of 2014, encouraging as certain aspects of it may be.
"Of course we've made progress, but obviously not enough progress or else we would have won that game," Towles said. "Like I said, losing sucks. It's awful. I hate it. It's not something that's going to become a habit around here. We'll watch it tomorrow, we'll get better and we'll be ready to go in two weeks."
Following a bye, UK will return to action in Commonwealth Stadium. In that game against Vanderbilt, the Cats will look to take what they gained from a loss and turn it into what they're really after: a win.
"We're never, ever gonna be happy with moral victories," Stoops said. "But if we lay it on the line like that and prepare like that and go to play like that, then we'll grow up and we'll have more opportunities to win. And when we get in those opportunities, you got to learn from this and you got to make plays."
Freshman Taylor Braun has posted four consecutive shutouts in goal for Kentucky. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Brianna Brents, UK Athletics
Freshmen have a choice in joining a college team for the first time: act their age or take control.
Taylor Braun has chosen the latter.
The goalkeeper is stepping up to the plate as a new freshman on the team that lets hard work speak for itself.
In spite of the attitude, Braun was still a little shocked when she was named Co-Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week only three weeks into the season.
"I have to give credit to my team and my defenders helping me out throughout preseason and through the first couple of our games, but it was definitely an awesome feeling," said Braun.
Braun spent a lot of her summer training and growing to become better at her skill. She selected Kentucky because she wanted to be a part of a team that was continuing to build, and with Jon Lipsitz as the head coach, she wanted to be a part of making a legacy.
Lipsitz said he wasn't surprised at all by the way Braun has stepped up and made big saves.
"Our plan for all of our players is to first get better every day, and she's been looking at a lot of film and seeing the things that she has been doing well, and the things that she's not doing well," Lipsitz said. "We go out on the field and work on it; it's just a part of the process."
Reacting positively to short-term failure is what Kentucky women's soccer is all about.
"We lost a game at the beginning of the year and we learned from it," Lipsitz said. "I'm not a believer in you have to lose to be motivated. I'm glad that we've continued to learn from the first game, and the difference is we're learning in victory rather than defeat now".
UK has done plenty of that since that season-opening 4-1 loss at Washington. The Wildcats have won five games in a row, the last four coming in shutout fashion with Braun in goal.
"I just wanted to come in and make a statement that it doesn't matter what age you are, you can be a factor in the game," Braun said.
UK will look to cap a successful run through nonconference play on Sunday at noon ET at home against Pepperdine. After that, it's on to conference play in the always challenging SEC. The Cats' goals through all of that are simple.
"We want to get better every day and we want to win every game and that never changes," Lipsitz said. "That's a part of the process of being in the culture of our team. We're going to be great teammates to one another, we're going to be a family and we're going to work incredibly hard to get better every day."
At Kentucky, that team mentality is fueled by an individually focused approach, counterintuitive as that may seem.
"We take pride in our girls in this program on the individual development of our players, and because of the players developing so much individually, the team gets better also," said Lipsitz.
UK's precocious goalkeeper is an important part of that process.
"Bigger things are coming for our team individually and collectively," Braun said. "It takes a lot of discipline and work ethic to play at this level and you have to do a lot of work on your own. You have to grind when there are days when you're tired, have a lot of homework or didn't get much sleep; you just have to press through. Every day I go in focused and try to get better and learn the aspects of the game and become a student of the game every day."
Callum Irving posted a shutout in UK's 1-0 win at top-ranked Notre Dame on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
As the lingering seconds began to vanish one by one from the clock overhead on Monday, Callum Irving had no idea he was about to take the biggest goal kick of his collegiate career.
"I looked at the clock as I was running over to grab the ball, and the ref had stopped it because he thought I was wasting time," Irving said. "So basically, I was like, 'I'm going to take my time, put the ball down, and make sure I use as much power that I have left in my leg to try to get the ball as far away from our net as possible.' "
Letting the clock strike zero with no goals on the board for either team was the last thing on the junior's mind. Like the rest of his Wildcat teammates, Kentucky's First-Team All-Conference USA goalkeeper was hungry for a marquee win.
Irving booted the goal kick well into opponent territory, finding freshman forward Stefan Stojkovic along the way. Stojkovic immediately passed the ball to freshman midfielder Hampus Agerstrom, who again found Stojkovic for a quick one-two at the edge of the box. Stojkovic fired away from 15 yards, scoring the game's first goal with only 25 ticks remaining.
Kentucky would hold on to win the game 1-0, knocking off defending national champion and top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The result marked UK's first victory over a No. 1 team since 2007, and the Fighting Irish's first loss since October 26, 2013.
Needless to say, Kentucky's man in the net was pleased with how the evening ended.
"This is one of the more memorable games (of my career)," Irving said. "For me, this is what I came to college to do: go to places like Notre Dame and play against the No. 1 team in the nation and defending national champs, and beat them on their home turf. To have that goal coming into college, and then to be put in a scenario where we have the opportunity to do that, it's fantastic. It's definitely something I'm going to look back on with a lot of happiness."
Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren echoed Irving's sentiments, though he was quick to point out that the Wildcats' latest milestone was merely another step forward in achieving the team's ultimate objective.
"It's a regular-season game, and you still have fourteen games to go," Cedergren said. "But, as young of a team as we have -- 21 of the 26 guys being underclassmen -- I think it's really important to talk a lot about confidence and belief. To be able to beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame should give both the staff and the players a lot of confidence."
The Cats will carry that confidence throughout the season.
"I think for the young guys, it's all about feeling like you belong, or feeling that you're good enough," Cedergren said. "We talk about making a run deep into the postseason. If you're going to do that, you're going have to believe that you belong. I think a win against Notre Dame would give you some belief and sense of belonging."
While Kentucky's 1-0 defeat of Notre Dame may qualify as an upset, the result came as no accident. Careful consideration and detailed planning before the season even began were factors that eventually led to the match even taking place.
"The way I schedule every year is to try to find a balance between not scheduling too tough, and scheduling hard enough so that if we do not win the (Conference USA Tournament), we can get an (NCAA Tournament) at-large bid," Cedergren said.
However, the third-year head coach refused to take all of the credit for the current direction of Kentucky's soccer season.
"I have a really good leadership council," Cedergren said. " ... The team basically got to vote for who they thought the leaders were on the team. So, we have five guys in that council: Callum Irving, (forward) Justin Laird -- who's our only senior - (sophomore defender) Charlie Reymann, (junior midfielder) Kristoffer Tollefsen, and (sophomore defender) Jordan Wilson. The six of us meet at least on a weekly basis, and I give them challenges they can carry on with the team."
Irving, who had a career-high seven saves in the upset at Notre Dame, offered further insight into the Cats' leadership council.
"Basically, it's just five guys selected by the team to look over the team and act as captains, being a buffer zone in between the coaches and the players," Irving said. "A lot of times, it's difficult for the players to come with their problems to the coaches; it's a bit intimidating. So, we act as someone who can talk to the coaches on behalf of the players and listen to the players' problems without them having to go to the coaches."
The next task for UK's leadership council is to make sure the Cats don't squander the opportunity created by their big win. That starts on Saturday at 7 p.m. with a home match against East Tennessee State.
"For us -- where we're the young team -- we're on top of the world right now," Cedergren said. "But we're playing again on Saturday. Every single game, play like you're going to play at Notre Dame. I think it's a step in the right direction with the win, but at the same time, it's game No. 4 out of 18 regular season games. So, we've just got to keep going."