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Kentucky Wildcats TV continues to produce some great stuff as UK's Saturday matchup with South Carolina approaches. This time, Patrick Towles sits down to talk about his journey from third stringer a year ago to having a breakout season as the starter in 2014.
And by the way, one of the best players in UK history and current Green Bay Packer star Randall Cobb will be in attendance to watch Towles and the Cats in action this weekend.
On the heels of a "really good" Wednesday, UK continued its new game-week habit of holding a lighter practice on Thursday.
With a matchup with South Carolina just two days away, the Wildcats had another productive day.
"Guys were sharp, so looking forward to Saturday," Stoops said. "Guys are locked in and ready to go, so we're anticipating a big day."
A big day and a big blackout crowd.
UK will play its first home night game of the season on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. With the buzz surrounding the Wildcats and their 3-1 start, the biggest crowd in the Stoops era is expected.
"I'm excited," Stoops said. "I'm looking forward to the atmosphere Saturday, absolutely. Like I've said many times, we appreciate the support we've been getting. We're trying to do our part and build a program that everybody's proud of and we're looking forward to getting some of that home-field advantage, absolutely."
It's Stoops' hope that Cats can use that home-field advantage to avoid the slow start that befell them last season against the Gamecocks. UK fell behind 21-0 in the game before rallying and nearly pulling off the upset in a 35-28 road loss.
"As I said earlier in the week, last year -- we really didn't fare so well last year down there," Stoops said. "They started extremely fast. We have to do a better job at home of trying to withstand that. I think everybody would like to have a fast start, so we've got to be ready to go, that's for sure."
As big as the game may be, Stoops isn't thinking much about the talk of UK making waves in the Southeastern Conference East division race with a win.
"It's truly one game," Stoops said. "It's another game, it's the next game. If you take care of your business then we can have that conversation as we move forward. But we're a long way from there. We're still taking it one day at a time, one game at a time. Like I said, I think we're excited and guys are ready to play and really had a pretty good week of practice. So we're just worried about our preparation and how we go out and execute and how we go play."
On the injury front, Stoops expects Zach West and Cole Mosier to be available for the game after missing last week. However, wide receivers Jeff Badet and Alex Montgomery will not play.
A month into the season, six teams are within a game of first-place Missouri, which won its first and only league game of the season this past weekend.
The team that ends up representing the East in the SEC Championship Game is anyone's guess, but Kentucky has an opportunity to put itself in the thick of the race with a win this weekend.
That fact led to inevitable questions to players about the quick transition from back-to-back winless SEC seasons to being a victory away from contender status.
Patrick Towles, however, doesn't quite see things that way.
"I feel like we're right in the middle of the SEC race right now," Towles said.
The confidence reflected in Towles' words has overtaken the UK program in Mark Stoops' second season. The Wildcats (3-1, 1-1 SEC) will carry that belief into a matchup with South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday for which fans are being asked to participate in a blackout.
"We're trying to win a football game," Towles said. "We want to win every football game we play. Every time we chalk it up over there, no matter where it is, we expect to win."
In spite of that expectation, the Cats understand the challenge awaiting them.
South Carolina opened the season in the top 10 before dropping its season opener against Texas A&M, 52-28. The Gamecocks, playing the nation's fifth-toughest schedule to date according to the Sagarin Ratings, then rebounded with wins over East Carolina, then-No. 6 Georgia and Vanderbilt before squandering a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Missouri over the weekend.
"I know Coach (Steve) Spurrier and their staff, they've been unhappy with inconsistent play at times, but that's us as well," Stoops said. "They certainly looked dynamic on both sides of the ball. Certain games in particular, you look at the Georgia game and how good they played. So, I'm sure they're mad and ready to improve on all sides, just like we are."
Mad as they may be about the loss, the Gamecocks were outstanding defensively against Missouri. South Carolina allowed just 280 yards, 119 of which came on the Tigers' two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. That's a far cry from the 680 yards Texas A&M racked up against South Carolina, a difference that can be explained in part by the three true freshmen on the Gamecocks' depth chart at cornerback.
"I think they simplified," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said, explaining South Carolina's improvement. "They cut down on the things they were doing. And I think they're tackling a lot better. They're playing a lot better fundamentally. ... So I think early in the season, that A&M game was much more of an aberration than anything. Because they've come back. If you look, I don't know of any defense in the country that's played the kind of offenses they've played this early in the season."
At times, UK's offense has played at a similar level to South Carolina's past opponents. At other times, the Cats have not, namely in the second half of a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. Towles has taken a brunt of the criticism in the loss for his three fumbles and interception returned for a touchdown, but Brown says that's a little unfair.
"I think it's important that we've got to keep improving," Brown said. "Did some good things against Vandy, but I think much has been made about Patrick. If he plays bad and completes 23 of 30 every game, then we'll be all right."
UK is going to need Towles at his sharpest against South Carolina, however, and he's acutely aware of that fact.
"They're always tough," Towles said. "Every week is going to be a tough one for us. They're good up front, got a kind of inexperienced secondary but still talented. No matter who runs out there, they're going to be a talented player. We've got to be ready for them."
In spite of South Carolina's defensive talent, offense has always been Spurrier's calling card. The Gamecocks have piled up an average of 421.6 yards and 5.9 yards per play this season behind first-year starting quarterback Dylan Thompson (1,359 yards passing and 12 touchdowns) and star running back Mike Davis (80 carries for 368 yards).
"Coach Spurrier has had a lot of success and he has a lot of experience, and he's an excellent coach," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "And he will get you. So you've got to be on your Ps and Qs and you got to have your guys ready to play, because he knows how to get you and he's an excellent football coach. We're gonna have our (work) cut out for us this weekend."
UK's defense has been up to the task this season. After allowing just 139 yards and eight first downs in a win over Vanderbilt, the Cats rank 25th nationally in total defense, continuing a trend of second-year improvement under Stoops at all of his coaching stops.
"A big part of it is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football. I think we need to continue to work on that."
Spurrier has taken notice of that improvement, whether it's on defense or otherwise.
"Kentucky Wildcats are a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "They don't look like some of their teams 10, 15 years ago. They are very fast, athletic. I think their defense is actually nationally ranked in all categories. They're a good-looking team. They play tough, smart, well-coached, and will certainly be a good challenge as we go into Commonwealth Stadium to play Kentucky this year."
The respect goes both ways.
"Coach Spurrier and South Carolina have won an awful lot of football games the past couple years and have a very good football team again this year, so we'll have our hands full," Stoops said. "We're excited to play. It'll be a great atmosphere in Commonwealth this weekend, and so our kids are up for the challenge and it's been a good week of preparation so far."
Mark Stoops said following an "OK" practice on Tuesday that UK would have to step it up in its preparations for South Carolina.
That's exactly what the Wildcats did on Wednesday.
"We had a good Wednesday practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around and communicating. It was what to be expected, so we're making progress and continuing to get better and looking forward to tomorrow's practice as well."
Practice time is precious as UK readies for a matchup with the Gamecocks. That's especially true for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who will match wits with legendary South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
"Coach Spurrier has had a lot of success and he has a lot of experience and he's an excellent coach and will get you," Eliot said. "So you've gotta be on your Ps and Qs and you gotta have your guys ready to play because he knows how to get you and he's an excellent football coach and we're going to have our (work) cut out for us this weekend."
Spurrier uses first-year starter Dylan Thompson at quarterback after Connor Shaw's graduation. Thompson is a different player than his predecessor, but has thrown for 1,359 yards and 12 touchdowns through five games.
"Shaw's more of a runner," Eliot said. "Shaw will tuck it down and get some yards on you. He had some loose plays. He was a scramble player. Thompson's a great pocket quarterback, has a strong arm, makes good throws, makes good decisions, but Shaw was more of a runner."
The change works out fine because running back Mike Davis gets it done on the ground for the Gamecocks.
"Mike Davis is an excellent player," Eliot said. "He's big. He's fast. He makes great reads. He can change directions. He'll run you over. He's one of the top backs in the SEC and we're going to have our (work) cut out for us this week."
Kentucky's weekly media schedule didn't call for Mark Stoops to speak after practice until Thursday, but the UK head coach made an exception on Tuesday.
Stoops commented on the suspension of Dorian Baker, Drew Barker, Tymere Dubose and Stanley Williams stemming from an on-campus incident on Sunday night. He made it clear their actions were unacceptable, but was sure they were a departure from the character of the four true freshmen.
"We have some good kids that used poor judgment, that made a mistake," Stoops said. "They know they made a mistake and they're being held accountable for it. We tried to address it quickly and decisive. They were wrong. And, like I said, they were remorseful. They realize it now."
Stoops first learned the players were involved in the incident minutes before his weekly press conference on Monday. After gathering facts, the decision to suspend them was announced just hours later.
"We do like we try to do whether it's a win, a loss or a mistake or anything good or bad," Stoops said. "We hit it right on, right in the face. We tell them what's going on and what they're accountability's going to be both publicly and to their team."
Beyond the public suspension, the matter was addressed internally within the team, according to Stoops. He said Wildcats now had some "closure" on the issue.
"We have expectations," Stoops said. "We have core values within our program. We try to live them each and every day. We understand that we're not perfect, just like somebody within our family. We made a mistake. They're going to be held accountable and we'll move on."
For UK, moving on means preparing for a stiff test against South Carolina on Saturday evening. The suspensions caused a minor distraction on Monday, but nothing to derail their game-week work.
"We're fine," Stoops said. "We're good. We had a great day Sunday of coaches prepping and we had a good day all day Monday."
Tuesday wasn't quite as good, as Stoops described the late-afternoon practice as just "OK." UK will have to improve with the Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) waiting.
South Carolina has played arguably the toughest schedule in the country to this point, scoring wins over Georgia, East Carolina and Vanderbilt and losing to Texas A&M and Missouri. The Gamecocks led 20-7 in the fourth quarter last weekend against Missouri, but gave up 14 unanswered in the final seven minutes to lose 21-20.
The Gamecocks' performance, however, was still impressive to the offensive coordinator tasked with preparing for them.
"Got a good football team rolling in here on Saturday night; they'll be a hungry football team," Neal Brown said. "I'm impressed, really impressed with what they did on Saturday night. I watched the TV, watched it live and then watching it on coaches' film. They held a very good Missouri offense to ballpark 280 yards, 150 pass and 130 rushing. Very impressive. They've gotten better."
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
It was an NFL week 4 that saw four wins, five losses, and two bye weeks between the sport's 11 UK alumni. Two Wildcat receivers found their way into the end zone, ensuring victories for their teams under must-win circumstances. Let's see how they and a few other headliners did.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers
Former First-Team All-American Randall Cobb had a Sunday to remember. In a 38-17 win over the Chicago Bears, Cobb caught seven passes for a team-high 113 yards. He also secured two touchdown receptions, bringing Cobb's total to five on the season. Fellow Kentucky alumnus and Packers teammate Tim Masthay failed to see the field in only the second game without a punt in NFL history.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers
Stevie Johnson's lone Week 4 reception was an acrobatic 12-yard touchdown catch midway through the third quarter to bring his team within one point. The grab was Johnson's first-ever TD as a 49er, aiding his team in a 26-21 victory over the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles.
Avery Williamson | #54 LB | Tennessee Titans
Tennessee rookie linebacker Avery Williamson recorded seven combined tackles -- the most of his young career -- as well as a career-high six solo tackles Sunday. However, the Titans were blown out by the Indianapolis Colts, 17-41.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 LB | Tennessee Titans
Despite his team losing by at least 24 points for the second consecutive week, Wesley Woodyard was able to shine defensively on the road in Indianapolis. The seven-year NFL veteran's afternoon was highlighted by the sixth interception of his professional career. Woodyard also tallied nine combined tackles and six solo tackles in the Titans' loss.
Coming off its first Southeastern Conference win in three years, the Kentucky football team is beginning to generate an aura of excitement not seen around these parts in years. But with said recent success comes mounting challenges.
The stakes for the 3-1 (1-1 SEC) Wildcats only ratchet up from here, beginning with a visit from South Carolina on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 SEC) have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, with a win over No. 13 Georgia in Week 3 as proof of the talent of Steve Spurrier's team.
Mark Stoops is fully embracing, but still wary of, the challenges that go along with trying to win two straight games in the nation's toughest conference.
As happy he was with his team -- especially his defense -- in delivering his first SEC win as a head coach over Vanderbilt last Saturday, he's looking to improve on multiple fronts.
"We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football," Stoops said. "I think we need to continue to work on that."
Playing fundamental football was a major theme of Stoops' Monday lunchtime press conference, where he previewed Saturday's matchup with the Gamecocks.
"A big part of (Kentucky's defensive improvement this season) is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... Our team is starting to get that at times, but it comes down to being a fundamental football team on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
"We just need to continue to improve and worry about ourselves and get better at what we're trying to do."
One area the Wildcats will look to improve is on offense.
While UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown had plenty to be happy about -- namely a 13-play, 99-yard touchdown drive to open the game, a 66-yard scoring drive to end the half and 201 passing yards for quarterback Patrick Towles -- a game in which UK's defense allowed its fewest yards in a SEC game since 1996 was still closer than it may have needed to be.
The Wildcats put 17 points on the board in total, which it should be said was enough to win by double digits, but UK's head coach was eager to point out areas where his team can improve.
"We got behind the chains with certain things, you know," Stoops said. "Whether it be a fumble or a penalty and just silly things, just got behind the chains, and we missed some shots. We had our opportunities, and we just missed them slightly. ... So we've just got to be more precise and execute better."
Stoops would also like his team to play sharper in front of the home fans, who have been coming out in bigger numbers of late and will have a chance of seeing UK go 4-0 at Commonwealth Stadium for the first time since 2008 on Saturday. A season-high 56,940 members of Big Blue Nation watched last Saturday's win, and UK will look to repay the favor with a strong showing this week in the season's first night game, and a blackout to boot.
"We're trying to play as best we can every week, no matter where it is," Stoops said. "You heard me talk about it a couple weeks ago. Sometimes we're playing some of our better football on the road at times. We've got to get back to playing the best we can here."