Courtney Raetzman scored the game-winning second-half goal in UK's win over South Carolina on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Rain falling, wind blowing and two tough losses on their mind, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to their home field.
The matchup with a tough South Carolina team was a big one, with precious few opportunities remaining for resume-building wins ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the conditions were far from ideal, the Cats weren't about to be deterred. The result was an important victory.
"It was definitely huge for us," Courtney Raetzman said. "It showed a lot about our character and coming out here to fight. That's what we came to do."
To Michelle Rayner -- filling in for Jon Lipsitz on Friday night as the head coach served a one-game suspension for a red card given in a loss at Texas A&M on Sunday -- it was that fight that made all the difference for UK (8-5-0, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) in a 1-0 win.
"Loved it. Loved it," Rayner said. "And I think that's really kind of what we've been lacking, is not only the fight but winning the first and second balls and the battle in the midfield and primarily up top, to keep the ball for us. And I think we did a much better job of that today."
The fight was on display in a tough first half, as UK managed to make it out in a scoreless tie with South Carolina (9-4-1, 2-3-1 SEC) in spite of playing into the wind and rain. In the second, Raetzman put away the winner in the 66th minute.
"Cara Ledman crossed it, it goes past everyone and I slid to get it before anyone," Raetzman said. "But big credit goes to my team for that because they built that whole play up."
Raetzman deserves some credit too. She executed the game plan to perfection with her finish.
"As you can see by the goal, Cara Ledman got into the final third, slipped a ball through and we were talking about sliding and diving in the final third to get on the end of things and (Raetzman) did the exact same thing to them," Rayner said. "A good couple adjustments and they did it well."
A.J. Stamps has a team-high three interceptions through five games of his debut season at Kentucky. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
It was somewhat forgotten because of the second half that followed, but A.J. Stamps made a play against South Carolina that may have turned the game.
The Gamecocks were driving in the final minute of the first half, seemingly poised to build on a 17-14 lead, but Stamps had other ideas. On first down from the UK 15, the safety read quarterback Dylan Thompson to perfection, breaking on the ball and intercepting the pass.
By appearances, it seemed as if Stamps had seen the play dozens of times in practice. In reality, he was simply relying on the instincts that have made Stamps a revelation in his first season at UK
"That was my first time seeing that play on the field," Stamps said.
UK would cash in on Stamps' pick and 50-yard return with a long field goal to tie the game at half. The rest, of course, is history, as the Wildcats would go on to score the upset and move to 4-1 on the season.
Stamps, with his knack for diagnosing plays, has been a key cog for a much-improved Kentucky defense. His three interceptions are not only a team high, but they also match UK's entire 2014 total.
Perhaps just as importantly, Stamps' knack for trusting his instincts has earned him a leadership role on the gridiron, but it doesn't stop there.
"(Being a leader means) just coming out, being vocal, and filling (the) leadership shoes... and just helping my teammates out on and off the field," Stamps said.
Stamps came to Kentucky this season as a junior-college transfer from East Mississippi Community College. After winning a national championship as part of the NJCAA's second-ranked defense, Stamps brought a winner's mentality to Lexington, where second-year head coach Mark Stoops' rebuilding effort was already in motion.
"(The coaching staff) talked to me about the future and how bright (it) is... I saw the players that were here that they were counting on," Stamps said. "I just felt comfortable with the coaches and the players, and that's what kind of sold me on coming here to Kentucky."
Without even playing a game, the junior standout's presence could be felt almost instantly.
"The winning mentality that came in this year... kind of influenced some of the players that already were here," Stamps said. "It kind of rubbed off on them and they had a winning mentality, too."
After graduating from JUCO in December, Stamps immediately enrolled at UK last January. According to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, Stamps' early admission provided him with coveted additional time to prepare for the upcoming season.
"He understands our defense very well," Eliot said. "He was here in the spring. He got a whole spring ball. He was here all summer, and had earned that starting position pretty quick into spring ball. So, he'd been getting the (first-team) reps for a long time."
Along with natural instincts and exceptional athletic ability, preparation is what allows Stamps to play defense with such a high football IQ. The amount of time Stamps spends studying the game off the field leads to an increased comfort level during game situations.
"I feel much more comfortable," Stamps said. "(I'm) getting to know the playbook, as well. We make a couple tweaks here and there every week. I just put a lot more effort into studying (them) and actually sitting down and watching film."
Stamps' performance at safety this season is all the more impressive when one considers that Stamps played cornerback during his two years in JUCO. Thanks to his natural aptitude for vocal leadership, however, the transition has been all but seamless in Stamps' first season at the FBS level.
"(Playing) safety at this level, you make a lot of checks," Stamps said. "You most likely are like the quarterback on the defensive side."
Eliot confirmed his player's sentiment, while praising Stamps' ability as a vocal leader.
"It's critical because your safeties, for the secondary, they're the quarterbacks, and you have to be great communicators," Eliot said. "But, you also have to know what you're doing, think fast, and get it communicated. He's done a tremendous job."
Last year's three-interception total was tied for the worst in the country in 2013. That seems a far cry from Stamps' Wildcats, whose nine total interceptions this season are good for fourth best in America. It became apparent during Kentucky's first game of 2014, when Stamps made a spectacular one-handed pick against UT Martin, that last year was a long time ago.
"A.J. is playing very well. He's one of our best players on our defense and has unbelievable instincts," Eliot said. "He's got a lot of talent, one--and he's got a lot of natural instincts."
With less than 48 hours before a noon game against ULM on Saturday, Kentucky held its usual light Thursday practice.
Head coach Mark Stoops called it a "good mental day" for the Wildcats.
"Guys had good energy, seemed to be locked in, so it was good to start to put our finishing touches on ULM, looking forward to a good game," Stoops said. "A lot of it's mental between here and Saturday; just trying to get everybody locked in."
Stoops hasn't seen any signs of his team relenting in its focus with a break from Southeastern Conference play following a big win over South Carolina on Saturday. Nonetheless, he and his staff continue to harp of the importance of approaching this week and this game the right way.
"We have an opportunity to prove ourselves each and every week, no matter who we're playing," Stoops said. "I'm sure a lot of people around campus have been telling them good job and slapping them on the back all week and all that stuff, and there's just so much more we need to improve on. If you're not ready to play, you will be embarrassed."
For a young team off to its best start in six years and coming off its first back-to-back SEC wins in five years, handling success is more new territory in a season full of it.
"Now all of a sudden, yeah, we won two games in a row, and we need to go play well again," Stoops said. "And it's a game that we're favored, and so how are we gonna respond? Are we gonna handle our business and go out and play the same way we've been the last couple weeks and take care of our business?"
Patrick Towles will lead UK into a matchup with ULM at noon ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Winning back-to-back Southeastern Conference games is no small feat.
In fact, Kentucky hadn't done it in five years before taking down Vanderbilt and South Carolina in consecutive weeks.
A torrent of excitement on the part of fans has followed the victories and UK's 4-1 start, but Mark Stoops has gotten back to work since his signature win on Saturday. He can't stop thinking about the way the Wildcats have won those two games.
"Two weeks ago played great defense, maybe not as well offensively," Stoops said. "This past week played extremely good offense, and defense not as good as we have."
UK, of course, held Vanderbilt to just 139 yards and not a single offensive score in a 17-7 win over the Commodores, but stalled on offense in the second half. Against South Carolina, the Cats couldn't stop the run and allowed 500 yards, but scored 45 points to upend the Gamecocks and send an electric Commonwealth Stadium crowd into raucous celebration.
Clearly, Kentucky is capable of playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. Hosting ULM on Saturday at noon ET, the Cats will look to marry solid offensive and defensive performances.
"We just need to continue to worry about ourselves and continue to improve," Stoops said. "I think that's the good thing. There is an awful lot on this film from this past week that we can improve on, that we will improve on."
That starts on defense, specifically in the ground game.
South Carolina had 282 rushing yards on Saturday, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in the process. As a result, the Gamecocks punted just three times, though UK did have three interceptions to pave the way for the win.
"We didn't play very well in the run game," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Probably our worst performance in the run game. It was very disappointing. It was mainly linebacker play. I think linebacker play was poor in the run game. So, we need to make improvements this week in that area."
Defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree has received that message loud and clear. The senior leader also has a good idea what it will take to make those improvements.
"The key to playing the run better on our defense is basically just doing our job, don't try to be selfish," Dupree said. "We had another case of trying to be selfish last game and it showed in the long run and they gashed us a lot of times. So this week we're just focused on doing our job to make sure everyone stays in their gaps."
The play Dupree made to give UK the win against South Carolina is proof of exactly that.
As Gamecock quarterback Dylan Thompson dropped to pass in the final minutes on Saturday, Dupree and defensive tackle Mike Douglas played their assignments to perfection. When Thompson threw, Douglas got his right hand on the ball. Dupree was in position to grab it in midair and scoot into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
"Just do your job and things will happen for you," Dupree said. "In the long run, just make sure everyone stays in their gaps and does their assignments and it'll pay off big time for us."
The Warhawks (3-2, 2-1 Sun Belt) will provide a test on that front.
"ULM's a balanced offense that can attack you in a lot of ways," Eliot said. "They can line up in spread looks and throw the ball around. But they also can get in some two-back sets and run power and run counter. So it's a team that we've got a lot to prepare for."
UK's offense will have a unique challenge to prepare for as well.
ULM uses a 3-3 stack on defense, a system current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez is best known for. In their base formation, the Warhawks play with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
"Those guys are really well-coached," Brown said. "Todd Berry has done a really good job there. Not only there but some other places he's been also. Got a lot of respect for their defensive coordinator (Troy Reffett). He's tough. It's a little bit unorthodox. They're really sound in what they do, but you just don't see it a lot."
ULM is unpredictable in the way it pressures the quarterback, and the Warhawks are tied for eighth nationally in sacks per game (3.8) as a result. On the flip side, UK will have its chances to capitalize when the Warhawks don't get to Patrick Towles.
"They get a lot of tackles for loss," Towles said. "They get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, but there's a lot of opportunities for big plays. So when they come we gotta hit them and hopefully we do that."
As fascinating as the Xs and Os will be when the Cats and Warhawks face off, the outcome will depend more heavily on which team is ready to play. ULM has already faced LSU on the road and taken down Wake Forest in its season opener, marking the third straight season in which the Warhawks have beaten a major-conference opponent. In 2012, ULM opened its season with an overtime win at No. 8 Arkansas before dropping games against Auburn and Baylor by a combined eight points.
"They are not intimidated coming into an environment like this," Stoops said. "They are so used to playing big teams. In the past four or five years they have played SEC teams well, beaten SEC teams, come within one possession of beating great SEC teams."
Combine ULM's big-game experience with the fact that UK is coming off a huge win and you have a matchup that might seem ripe for an upset. The Cats have other plans.
"Don't expect a letdown," Brown said. "I don't believe in it. You've got 365 days for 12 opportunities. You better not waste one. I fully expect us not to waste one. We'll be ready to go."
Besides, UK wouldn't dare waste a chance at playing that elusive complete game.
"That's what makes you optimistic about the future because we haven't put it all together yet," Stoops said.
Coming off the signature win of the Mark Stoops era over South Carolina, Kentucky has moved on to preparations for a Saturday matchup with ULM.
The Wildcats might still be feeling a little physical malaise after pouring so much into the victory, but they're eager nonetheless.
"Pretty good work day today," Neal Brown said. "Guys are a little spent, a little spent. Had a good attitude, came ready to work, a little spent."
Brown doesn't expect the Cats to take long to shake that off.
This weekend, you see, is another measuring stick in a season full of them. ULM might not have the name recognition or its players the lofty recruiting rankings of a Florida or a South Carolina, but the Warhawks present a challenge the likes of which UK has not faced.
"I told our guys, it's an opportunity to see where we're at," Brown said. "I think we talked about it after the game on Saturday night, kind of see where we're at from a maturity standpoint. In this league, whether it's a conference game, nonconference game, you better be ready to strap it up every week."
ULM has already faced two major conference opponents in Wake Forest and LSU. The Warhawks fell 31-0 in Baton Rouge, but took down the Demon Deacons in their season opener by a final score of 17-10.
"I've been on the other end of this deal before, where (ULM) is, coming from the Sun Belt," Brown said. "Y'all know I was at Troy and our guys, especially the later in the season it goes, our guys always got up for these. We had some opportunities to win some and we won some. So I'll convey that to our offensive football team because they're going to come in here and they're hungry."
Not only are the Warhawks hungry, they are also aggressive on defense. ULM ranks eighth nationally in sacks per game (3.8), using an unconventional 3-3 stack defense to create pressure.
"Those guys are really well-coached," Brown said. "Todd Berry has done a really good job there. Not only there but some other places he's been also. Got a lot of respect for their defensive coordinator (Troy Reffett). He's tough. It's a little bit unorthodox. They're really sound in what they do, but you just don't see it a lot."
For that reason and many more, the Cats expect to be ready to play come noon ET on Saturday.
"Don't expect a letdown," Brown said. "I don't believe in it. You've got 365 days for 12 opportunities. You better not waste one. And I fully expect us not to waste one. We'll be ready to go."
The players are following their offensive coordinator's lead.
"We're focused on winning number five," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "We can't afford to look past anybody. We had a great win last week, but that's over with. It's past us. Nobody came into this season wanting to win four games. We want to win every game we play so we're getting ready to do that on Saturday."
Stoops announces indefinite suspension of Tubman
Lloyd Tubman, a member of the University of Kentucky football team, has been suspended indefinitely from all team activities following charges brought by University of Kentucky police Tuesday.
In addition to the charges, Tubman is subject to discipline under the University's Code of Student Conduct. Because of legal and student privacy regulations, University officials cannot provide comment to Tubman's specific participation in the student conduct process.
"Obviously, I'm very concerned about the allegations and all parties involved," Stoops said. "We're working extremely hard to develop quality young men on and off the field. We will continue to cooperate with the local and campus authorities while the process takes its course."
For more from Stoops on the suspension, watch the video below.
This week in the NFL, two former Kentucky Wildcats rejoined the professional ranks. Fullback John Conner (who was selected in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft) re-signed with the team that originally drafted him, the New York Jets. Safety Winston Guy, who was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars despite starting the first three games of the season, signed to the Indianapolis Colts' practice squad.
Keeping up the good spirits, Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan made his 2014 season debut after suffering a knee injury on Aug. 12. Tennessee Titans rookie linebacker Avery Williamson also recorded the first start of his NFL career. UK's 11 active NFL alumni posted a 6-5 record in Week 5, while five Cats stood out amongst the rest:
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (3-2) Once again, the Packers won by double digits over a division rival. Once again, Randall Cobb scored a touchdown. Coupled with three receptions for 34 yards, Cobb scored his sixth touchdown of the season (good for second best in the NFL). The Packers defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 42-10. The Packers played on Thursday night, allowing Cobb to make the weekend trip to Lexington for UK's upset win over South Carolina on Saturday.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (3-2) For the second consecutive week, it took Stevie Johnson only one reception to make his way into the end zone. Johnson caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the game's second quarter. The 49ers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 22-17.
Tim Masthay | #8 P | Green Bay Packers (3-2) After being called upon for a season-high six punts, Tim Masthay was able to successfully pin all but one inside the 20-yard-line. Masthay also netted his longest punt of the season (58 yards) in the Packers' win.
For his efforts, Masthay was named Sports Illustrated's MMQB Special Teams Co-Player of the Week. Danny Trevathan | #59 OLB | Denver Broncos (3-1) Returning from a left tibia fracture that kept him on the sidelines for the first three games of the season, Danny Trevathan recorded six solo tackles and one assisted tackle in the Broncos' 41-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (1-4) Despite Williamson's six solo tackles and one assist for the second week in a row, the Titans blew a 25-point lead in a 29-28 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
The opportunity was there, and Mark Stoops knew it.
South Carolina was coming to town for a night game. Fans were buzzing over Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference win in almost three year. A blackout had already been announced.
All the Wildcats had to do was capitalize on the moment.
"We had it teed up pretty well," Stoops said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "We had the enthusiasm. The stadium was packed. We had a night game against a traditionally very good SEC team at home, and you want to deliver. You want to play well. You want to get a victory."
Though that was far easier said than done, UK pulled it off. The Cats twice overcame 14-point deficits, completing the largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history with a 45-38 win.
From two record Spring Game crowds to improving ticket sales to the two highest-rated recruiting classes in school history, Stoops had already generated plenty of excitement around the program. That excitement, however, was mostly about the future.
Saturday was all about the here and now.
"Everybody may see what you're doing and understand that there is progress being made," Stoops said. "I never shied away from that. You heard me talk about it before the season and everything, that I will be judged on wins and losses. It's a bottom-line business."
The bottom line looks a lot better after that win over South Carolina, which only figures to help the staff's already impressive work on the trail.
"I think there is a lot of people believing in what we are doing and how we go about recruiting players," Stoops said. "We help the players once they get here, they see that. But it's important for them to see progress on the field."
The progress now shows in UK's 4-1, including 2-1 in conference play. The Cats have already matched their win total from the previous two seasons combined, inspiring talk of bowl games and even SEC East title contention after the signature win of the Stoops era.
Stoops isn't engaging in any of that talk. He's too focused on the task immediately at hand.
"One week," Stoops said. "We need victories, you know? That's the bottom line. We can't worry about that. We will worry about ourselves and getting better."
Stoops, you see, was as happy as anybody on Saturday night, even extending his postgame press conference by two questions to bask in glory of the win for a few extra moments. But once he woke up the next morning, that was over and done with. His thoughts had moved on to a Saturday matchup with ULM.
"You know me, I talk about it and it's true: We're back to this week," Stoops said. "You know what I mean? It's a one-week season for me. We gotta go play well this week, and it starts over. Win or lose, it starts over for us on Sunday. That's the way we approach it and that's the way our team needs to approach it."
His players aren't as practiced in the art of moving on from a big win as he is, but they'll have plenty of help from Stoops.
"We'll stay with the plan we do, but the message will be different," Stoops said. "Again you've heard me say it before, they're going to hear enough good things from a lot of people and they're excited, I'm good with that. But they're going to hear about some of the negative, too, because we knew it was going to be a big environment."
Playing in the best environment Commonwealth Stadium has seen in years, the Cats were far from flawless even though they scored the upset. And in its own way, that's a good thing too.
"We stressed all week about taking care of the details in technique, not being too caught up in it where it hurts, and that showed," Stoops said. "They're going to hear about that and see that. That's the good news: There is a lot to correct from. There is still a lot more in this team. We can be a lot better and we're going to continue to work extremely hard to improve."
It's time, in other words, to capitalize on another opportunity.
UK deep at guard with West's return
Zach West hadn't been on the field in weeks, but he didn't look it against South Carolina.
After battling a neck injury, West was back as the starter at left guard on Saturday and he didn't miss a beat in playing a game Stoops said was his best.
With West and Cole Mosier now healthy and joining Ramsey Meyers and Nick Haynes, UK has depth at guard that should prove valuable going forward.
"What's nice now is we have four guys inside now," Stoops said. "We had two, but we had some injuries. Now we're getting back and getting healthy, so now we're going to rotate all four guys."
Now that West and Mosier are back, attention shifts to Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet. Stoops said the two wide receivers are not yet 100 percent, though they continue to rehab and run. Four freshmen back from suspension
After sitting on Saturday due to an on-campus incident, Dorian Baker, Stanley "Boom" Williams, Drew Barker and Tymere Dubose will be available to play this weekend.
"The players will be reinstated, yes, and they'll be back in the fold this week," Stoops said. "They will be back at practice and play in the game."
LSU game time set: Night game in Death Valley
The SEC announced television selections and kickoff times for games on Oct. 18. UK's game at LSU will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
A "blacked-out" Commonwealth Stadium (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's fourth-quarter comeback victory over Steve Spurrier's South Carolina was a cathartic experience for everyone who has invested in the UK football program in recent years.
At least prior to Saturday in the Mark Stoops era, when Kentucky would go down by 14 points they would lose the game. And so to come back twice from 14 points and win, was a novelty for those who have been around Kentucky over the last two years.
To their credit, Stoops' teams never gave up in past close games in which they fell behind, they just never finished the job. The Wildcats fought back valiantly in Southeastern Conference games against favored teams like Mississippi State and South Carolina last year, in addition to a triple-overtime loss at Florida three weeks ago.
So the 2014 Wildcats' ability to fight back from a two-touchdown deficit not once, but twice -- including with less than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth -- made the program-changing victory over the Gamecocks all the more of a milestone.
D.J. Eliot realized that Kentucky had gotten over a hump it had so often struggled to mount since the current staff took over before the 2013 season.
"We've had some some tight games before," the UK defensive coordinator said. "We had a tight game with these guys last year and we didn't win. This year we ended up on the better side. I'm excited about that."
Running back Jojo Kemp, who was the offensive star of the game with three touchdown runs and 131 yards on 17 carries mostly out of the Wildcat formation, summed up just how big the win was for a program that is learning to win in an on-field interview with the SEC Network after the game.
"I came here to change the program. And that's what we're doing," Kemp said. "Why not us? Why not Kentucky?" Brown gets tricky against the Head Ball Coach
Saturday's win was, for lack of a better term, a "game-changer" when it comes to outward impressions of the UK football program.
In terms of the game itself, a trick play early in the third quarter may just have given UK the confidence it needed to defeat South Carolina for the first time in four years.
Once again out of the Wildcat, from which UK scored all five of its offensive touchdowns, Kemp handed off to wideout Javess Blue, who ran left before pitching back to Patrick Towles. From there the UK quarterback passed 48 yards for a touchdown to Ryan Timmons. The touchdown gave UK its first lead of the game, igniting a season-best crowd of 62,135 as well as a sideline of players already high on belief, but hungry for results.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown certainly enjoyed executing a trick play against South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier who after all is known for his willingness to take risks.
"To be honest, yeah, it was fun," Brown said of the de facto flea-flicker. "It was the same play we ran against Tennessee. We had it the same and we didn't execute it. It was fun to execute it. That was the first trick play I think we've hit it right since I've been here.
"We used to hit those all the time at (Texas) Tech and Troy. So that was fun. It was a big play in the game. You talk about--that place was loud. When we hit that and Timmons scored, this place was electric." Forrest played like Williamson
The consensus around the UK defense entering the season held that the Wildcats' strength would be on the defensive line bookended by Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, while the secondary had an injection of talent spearheaded by junior-college transfer A.J. Stamps.
For their part Dupree and Stamps both had interceptions on Saturday, but the UK defense was anchored by junior linebacker Josh Forrest.
The middle linebacker entered the season facing a tall task: replacing Avery Williamson, who became the face of the program and an All-SEC selection in his final two years at UK and now plies his trade on Sundays for the Tennessee Titans.
Forrest, like Williamson last year, is currently the team leader in tackles, but his master class performance came against South Carolina.
The Paducah, Ky., native totaled a career-high 15 tackles, the most by a UK player since Williamson had 15 tackles in 2013 vs. Louisville. And his big game was the second double-digit tackle game of the season, with the other having come in another big SEC game, as he totaled 10 against Florida.
The trend for Forrest bodes well for a UK defense, which didn't play great, but did enough to win. SEC East ... contenders?
Saturday's result was, in a word, crazy, and the manner in which it occurred fit every bit of that description.
But perhaps the wildest development from Kentucky's fourth win of the season, given the trajectory of the program less than two years ago, was what the victory meant in terms of this season.
Believe it or not, at 4-1 (2-1 in conference play) the Wildcats are right in the thick of the race for the SEC East title.
Yes, a Kentucky team that went 2-10 each of the past two seasons, finds itself just one game behind first-place Missouri (4-1; 1-0 SEC) in the SEC East loss column.
Of course, UK has five conference games remaining (three of them against current AP Top 25 teams in addition to a trip to newly unranked LSU), but the Wildcats are also a triple-overtime game away from being 5-0.
How far UK has come in a short time, and how close UK is to perfection so far this season is not lost on UK's signal caller.
"We are extremely close to being 5-0, which would be unbelievable," Patrick Towles said. "We're 4-1, which is unbelievable. We're going to move forward, we're going to win a lot of games. The tenacity and the passion that we showed tonight is going to win us a lot of football games.
"We're definitely in (the SEC East title race) now. Definitely no question. We're there to stay for sure."
It was just as competitive as Craig Skinner expected it would be.
In a matchup of top-25 teams, Kentucky and Texas A&M went toe to toe in the second and third sets. There were a combined eight deuce points in the two sets and the Wildcats had to fight off five set points in the third.
The heat, in other words, was on.
"There's a lot of pressure when you're down and trying to have to knot it up each time you have to side out," head coach Craig Skinner said. "It's about making plays."
UK was able to make them.
The No. 13 Cats (14-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) battled relentlessly and finished off a win over the No. 21 Aggies (11-4, 3-1 SEC) in a match that was much closer than the final 3-0 score line. In so doing, UK swept its first home weekend in SEC play to stretch its winning streak to eight.
Lauren O'Conner (17 kills) and Shelby Workman (15 kills) headlined the UK attack, while Anni Thomasson doubled her previous career best with six aces to lead a strong Wildcat service game.
"It was huge," Skinner said. "You saw their offense, how fast it is and how difficult it is to defend. We were able to get them out of system most of the night until the end of the third set. And then they just--kill after kill after kill. So were able to get them out of system to get the lead there at the end and then make a play for match point. Serving's a big deal when you play against offensive teams."
An even bigger deal was the focus UK showed on defense. The Aggies hit a solid .295 for the match, but none of their 54 kills came easily. The Cats repeatedly made hustle and kept balls alive that seemed destined for the floor. Really, that's become the hallmark of this UK team.
"I've said it from the beginning: This is a very competitive group individually and they are not satisfied with the ball dropping within their range and they go for it until it drops," Skinner said.