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Whether it's an impressive defensive stop or a methodical drive, he can't miss the progress Kentucky has made seven games into the season. With each passing week -- save for a blip against Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team -- UK gets closer to putting together a total team effort, but wins continue to elude the Wildcats.
"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations."
Looking at the offensive side of the ball alone, Neal Brown sees the same thing.
"You know, I think we've had bits and pieces of success along the way," Brown said. "We just haven't been able to sustain it. That's the thing that's been frustrating is, we've done some really good things."
With a reprieve from the SEC grind awaiting them on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET for Homecoming vs. Alabama State (CSS), the Cats are looking to string together four quarters of "really good things." More importantly, they're looking to string together four quarters that will end in a victory.
"We gotta take advantage of each one that we can get," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So this week the focus is like it has been all year: come out and try to get a win."
The Cats knew as soon as the schedule came out that the five-game stretch they just wrapped up would be tough, and it proved to be just that. UK went winless against Louisville and four conference foes, so the Cats are without a victory since Miami (Ohio) came to town on Sept. 7.
UK, however, has been consistently competitive. Only against Alabama were the Cats completely out of contention in the second half and UK's last two road games against South Carolina and Mississippi State came down to the final possession.
"I think if you've noticed us as a program each week, no matter who we're playing, I think we gave ourselves a real chance to go out there and compete and win that game, and that's what we're looking for," Stoops said. "The preparation, the effort, and go out and play and give yourself a chance to win. We're never going to concede anything."
Nor will Alabama State concede anything.
The Hornets, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, are winners of six straight. They have scored at least 31 points each of those victories and figure to come to Lexington confident and ready to play.
"They should be feeling good about themselves," Stoops said.
On offense, Alabama State averages 261.8 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per carry. The Hornets have two runners with at least 740 yards through eight games and a sound passing offense to go with them.
"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well. But again, they've got great balance."
For all that balance, running back Isaiah Crowell still sticks out. The junior ran for 850 yards as a freshman at Georgia in 2011 before transferring to Alabama State. In less than two full seasons there, he has 27 touchdowns.
"They do have some talented guys," Williamson said. "Isaiah Crowell, he's a real good running back. He was there my sophomore year at Georgia, so I remember him. But he's a real good player so really gotta tackle him well. He's fast and he's a good kid."
Defensively, Alabama State is defined by its aggressiveness. The Hornets have 80 tackles for loss and 38 sacks by 16 different players.
"They will zero blitz probably more than a lot of people we play, so we've got to be prepared for that," Brown said. "The quarterbacks have got to be ready to get the ball out of their hands."
Sophomore Jalen Whitlow will get the call at quarterback on Saturday after being limited to second-half spot duty last week with an ankle injury. He added the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder to his list of ailing body parts against Mississippi State, but will play.
"It will just be trying to play through pain," Whitlow said. "It hurts. I'm not going to lie. It hurts a little bit. But I'm just going to try to play through it."
Whitlow was one of a handful of Cats who did just that last week. Bud Dupree, coping with a strained pectoral muscle, was the headliner after he tallied 13 tackles and a sack while playing through pain.
"Everyone appreciates it when you go out there and play," Dupree said. "Guys with casts on, everyone appreciates those guys too. Guys playing through nicks and bruises, it just means a lot to the team and to the coaches that they know you're going out there and playing for them and not just only for yourself."
Stoops started this week by talking extensively about the toughness it takes to play through the bumps inevitable during the course of a college football season. With yet another chance at a win ahead this weekend, he wants his team to take another step ahead in that area, as well as others.
"I think we're learning as we go and getting tougher and getting tougher mentally, and we need to keep on progressing," Stoops said.
Head coach Mark Stoops
Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown
With Kentucky having played just two games in the last three weeks and with an extra two days to prepare following a Thursday game, Mark Stoops said early Wednesday afternoon that the Wildcats are as healthy as they have been in a long while.
Later in the day, the Cats practiced at close to full strength and -- for the second time in as many days -- practiced well.
"I like the team's attitude and their work ethic, and again a pretty good, physical day, and I liked the energy," Stoops said. "I think we got better again today, so hopefully we'll keep on improving. We all know we need a lot of improvement, so another day in the books."
According to Stoops, execution in "crucial situations" is one of the areas in which UK needs to improve the most. Perfectly replicating game situations is impossible, but the coaching staff is doing its best in practice. Take third downs as an example.
"Just keep on working our third downs and different pressures and offensively execute in third downs and third and short, third and medium, third and long," Stoops said. "We need help in all of them. I think that's a big deal, just execution on those downs and getting as much different looks as we can, as much pressure on as we can in practice."
The Cats hope to improve on third downs solely by virtue of Jalen Whitlow's presence. The sophomore quarterback played only sparingly against Mississippi State due to injury, but has returned to the top spot on the depth chart and has been getting all starter reps in practice. Maxwell Smith and Reese Phillips are splitting snaps with the second team.
"I think in a perfect world we'd keep our quarterbacks healthy and whoever was in there would be running the offense efficiently," Stoops said. "And in this case, Jalen starting the game, it would be really nice to have him start a game and finish a game unless we decide to take him out for good reasons."
Whitlow is dealing with injuries to both his ankle and the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder, but he will once again tough it out on Saturday against Alabama State.
"It will just be trying to play through pain," Whitlow said. "It hurts. I'm not going to lie. It hurts a little bit. But I'm just going to try to play through it."
Head coach Mark Stoops
Defensive Coordinator D.J. Eliot
Mark Stoops took multiple signs of encouragement from his team's Tuesday practice after he had shown lingering frustration from last Thursday's loss at Mississippi State during his Monday press conference.
"I feel good today because I got it all off my chest yesterday," the UK coach said in reference to his first full-team meeting since last week's game. "We had a good meeting, and the guys responded. They understand. They know there are a lot of things we can do better. That's the bottom line. Like I said over and over again they care and think it's important, but we need to do it for 60 minutes, every play."
Stoops and his staff emphasize consistency because there's no way of knowing when the opportunity to make a play might arise.
The first-year head coach was perhaps most frustrated by his team's missed opportunities in last Thursday's Mississippi State game. Going forward being ready to make a play at any and every point in the game will take precedence within the Kentucky football team's focus.
"You don't know what play's going to change the game," Stoops said. "It's not just the obvious play all the time. There are a lot of plays in there that could change the game. And that's the message, so take them all (as) very important and do the details on all plays. And that's where we're working to get better."
Stoops was also quick to point out that despite its Football Championship Subdivision status, Alabama State will pose plenty of challenges for a Wildcat team looking to get back to winning ways.
"I'm sure they'll be very jacked up," Stoops said of his team's next opponent. "They're going to play on TV against an SEC school, and they want to prove to everybody that they're not just one of the better teams in the SWAC; they want to be recognized as a very good team. And they (have) won six in a row, so they should be optimistic and confident.
"They're a good team, and I think they're well-coached. We're worried about continuing to get better as a program. And I say that, I don't care who we're playing. We need to put it together and execute and play with great passion, great energy and let's play a little bit smarter."
Even five days removed from last Thursday's game, the Nutter Football Training Center was still buzzing on Tuesday about Alvin "Bud" Dupree's career-best game at Mississippi State. Dupree's 13 tackles - in his first outing since missing the majority of the two previous games with injuries - were the most for a Kentucky defensive lineman since such stats began being recorded in 1992.
"Bud played fantastic, made a lot of plays in the run game, but also had great pass rush, was there when we needed him and played through pain," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He had two things that were ailing him and he just toughed it out and played every single snap and we're very proud of his efforts."
Indeed the vibe all around Tuesday's Kentucky football practice was upbeat. The positive energy permeating UK's practice couldn't have been hurt by the fact that all the coaches families were in attendance, as they are almost every Tuesday, with the staff-members' children decked out in Halloween costumes.
Two days into game week preparations for Alabama State, Stoops and his staff had plenty of reason to be encouraged that despite its record, UK is taking the necessary steps to improve.
"We got better today," Stoops said. "We had good energy today, guys were moving around. Good practice on both sides of the ball. I thought we were as physical at practice as we have been in a few weeks. It was good overall work."
The junior defensive end/linebacker tallied a career-high 13 tackles, two half-sacks and two tackles for loss. Dupree was in the backfield throughout Kentucky's Thursday-night game at Mississippi State and nearly led the Wildcats to a comeback win.
Viewers needed only to watch Dupree to realize he was one of the best players on the field that night, but a deeper dive into play-by-play data reveals exactly how impactful his presence was. Here's a look at the plays on which he made each of his tackles.
So, Mississippi State gained an average of 0.077 yards on the 13 tackles Dupree made. None of those plays went for longer than six yards and only one resulted in a first down.
Offering a little perspective, Dupree's game against Mississippi State is one of seven double-digit tackle efforts by a UK defender this season (four by Avery Williamson and one each by Eric Dixon and Khalid Henderson). The smallest yards-per-tackle average in any of those games was when Louisville averaged 5.5 yards on Williamson's 15 tackles. Granted, Dupree plays a different position, but the difference is notable nonetheless.
Going back to the Mississippi State game, let's see how the UK defense performed when Dupree was not involved in the play.
Discounting the plays in which Dupree was involved, the Bulldogs gained 446 yards on 66 plays, an average of 6.8 yards per play. Not counting the one first down Mississippi State gained on a penalty, the Bulldogs gained first downs on exactly one-third of the plays that did not end in a Dupree tackle.
As impressive as all those numbers may be, those who have watched Dupree all season know his game against Mississippi State didn't come out of nowhere.
Dupree now has been involved in 40 tackles (32 on runs, two on passes and six on full or partial sacks) on plays from scrimmage this season (for the purposes of this post, we'll ignore the one special-teams stop he made against WKU). Opponents have gained an average of just 1.5 yards on those plays. On the 382 plays on which anyone other than Dupree makes a tackle, opponents have averaged 7.88 yards. Taking it a step further, opponents have gained just five first downs when Dupree makes a tackle (or 12.5 percent of those plays) and 142 when anyone else does (37.2 percent).
(Note: Incomplete passes are not included in the above calculations.)
It's also worth pointing out just how much Dupree is thriving in his first season playing in UK's new defense. A season ago, Dupree had 88 tackles from scrimmage on which opponents gained 21 first downs (23.9 percent) and an average of 3.5 yards per play. He has improved significantly in both measures in a more settled role this season, which makes sense given Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot's history of developing pass rushers.
Regardless why it's happening, Dupree's emergence, whether you're using statistics or the eye test to gauge it, is unmistakable.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 27:
Football Top Performers:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
MAC Hermann Award finalist Arin Gilliland netted her team-high 11th goal of the season in the 64th minute to draw even with the Tigers. Gilliland now has 11 goals and nine assists for 31 points on the season. With three points this weekend, Gilliland now has 72 career points, which is fifth all-time in UK history.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Senior Caitlin Landis scored her 21st-career goal on Friday night, as she is now the active career goal-scoring leader for Kentucky. The Milton, Penn., native has 12 points this season, with four goals and four assists. Landis had the assist on the game-tying goal on Sunday afternoon to Arin Gilliland, and was a crucial component for the other two goals in the UK offensive attack.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a terrific week for the Wildcats en route to a 2-1 week, with the only loss a heartbreaking 3-2 loss with a 23-21 score in the fifth set. Morgan averaged 2.50 kills per set on a team-high .436 hitting clip. She also averaged a team-high 1.25 blocks per set and ranked second on the team with 3.54 blocks per frame. She began the week with an 11-kill performance at Georgia which was the first double-figure kill effort in conference play of the season for the middle blocker. She also posted a team-best six blocks in the match and added a season-high three service aces. Against Mississippi State she notched five kills on a .400 hitting clip while adding a trio of blocks. Against her home-state team, Alabama, she posted a season-high 14 kills on a blistering .619 hitting percentage while adding six block assists. With a .436 hitting clip and 55 attempts on the week, Morgan moved into second-place all-time in the history of the UK program for hitting percentage with a career-clip of .346.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson continues to bring a consistent presence to the Wildcat lineup. Thomasson contributes in every facet of the game and this week was no exception as UK earned a 2-1 week against league foes with the only loss coming in five-set fashion with the fifth set resulting in a 23-21 score. Thomasson notched a career-high three assists and a career-best four blocks against the Bulldogs while adding seven kills and nine digs. She received 42 attempts from the serve-receive line and did not commit a single error. Against Mississippi State she reached double-figure kills for the fourth time in her career and with 12 resulting as a career-best in league competition. She laid down her kills with a .357 hitting clip, while adding three digs and a pair of blocks. In the four-set win over Alabama, Thomasson notched six kills, and 10 digs. She has topped the 10-dig plateau on six occasions in her young career. She also aided the Wildcat cause with a pair of assists.
But even though UK has shown improvement through that consistent effort, wins have been difficult to come by. The Cats have lost five games in a row, most recently at Mississippi State when their comeback bid fell just short.
Four days removed from the 28-22 defeat, Stoops is still stewing over it. Having watched the tape -- and probably more than once -- he still sees the hard work that has defined his team, but far too many mistakes as well.
"After going back and watching the Mississippi State game, I thought we did some very good things in that game, gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game," Stoops said. "Felt like our players competed extremely hard. We need to be a smarter football team."
From day one, Stoops didn't hide from the enormity of the rebuilding task facing him and his program. He recognizes the strides that have already been made, but he also sees players reverting at inopportune moments.
"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you're under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface."
Stoops had specific plays in mind in saying that, namely a handful of the 10 third downs Mississippi State converted and the successful onside kick UK had nullified by an offsides penalty. His frustration bubbled to the surface as he described them to the media assembled for his weekly press conference on Monday.
That also won't be the last time he brings them up.
"We'll watch those critical mistakes as a team," Stoops said, "not just an offense and not just a defense like we normally do, but the whole team will watch critical mistakes and plays that are not very smart. We need to play better."
Stoops acknowledged that confidence could be playing a role in the miscues that continue to cost UK so dearly. Unfortunately for the Cats, the success that it takes to build confidence is difficult to come by in the SEC.
"There's no gimmes in this league," Stoops said. "So anybody that's trying to rebuild a program will tell you that the best way to rebuild and get that confidence is get some wins. Well, they don't exactly give those out in the SEC."
This weekend, UK will step outside the SEC for its final nonconference game of the season. The Cats will host Alabama State (6-2) for their annual Homecoming Game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, but the Hornets -- who play in the FCS's Southwestern Athletic Conference -- will present plenty of challenges of their own.
"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well."
Alabama State has won six straight games after starting 0-2, largely on the strength of that running game. The Hornets feature two backs who have 740 or more rushing yards, including former Georgia standout Isaiah Crowell. Crowell has rushed for 833 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season at Alabama State.
"We recruited him quite hard during my time at Florida State," Stoops said. "I remember him. He was a fantastic player, one of the top players in the country coming out of high school, fantastic player, just very hard runner, elusive. For his size and strength, he's elusive."
Because of Alabama State's talent and Stoops' approach, UK won't treat Saturday's game any differently than the ones it just played against four consecutive conference opponents.
"This is the next game for us, therefore it's extremely important," Stoops said. "I think anybody that thinks that we can just roll out there because we're an SEC team and think you're going to roll out there and win this game, you're sadly mistaken."
Stoops has no reason to think his players will feel that way.
"I wouldn't think our players would feel overconfident about anybody we're playing I wouldn't think, and we'll address that," Stoops said. "But no, we've taken the approach, we're worried about ourselves. I can see our players doing that. I think we're trying to get better as a program."
Whitlow to start at QB
After coming on only for second-half spot duty against Mississippi State due to an ankle injury, Jalen Whitlow is back at the No. 1 spot on the depth chart UK released on Monday. Stoops said Whitlow also sustained an injury to his AC joint in his shoulder, but "should be fine" to play.
As long as Whitlow is cleared to play by the medical staff, Stoops wants his sophomore quarterback to take a lead from Connor Shaw and Johnny Manziel, who played through pain last weekend and led South Carolina and Texas A&M to victories.
"I see it as a guy that's leading the program in the SEC and I see other SEC players banged up and leading their team to victory, don't you?" Stoops said. "That's what we need to do."
Game vs. Missouri set for noon kickoff
The SEC released kickoff times and television information for conference games on Nov. 9. Kentucky's home game against Missouri will start at noon ET and will be televised on either ESPNU or FSN.
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