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Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (10-4)
In the Packers' 21-13 road loss to the Buffalo Bills, Cobb made seven catches for 96 yards. The former Kentucky quarterback-turned-wide-receiver also had three rushing attempts for 15 yards on the ground.
John Conner | #38 FB | New York Jets (3-11)
While the Jets emerged victorious for only the third time all season, Conner found added reason to celebrate after making the first touchdown catch of his NFL career. "The Terminator's" TD score came by way of a nine-yard pass from Geno Smith. New York defeated the Tennessee Titans, 16-11.
Ricky Lumpkin | #93 DT | Oakland Raiders (2-12)
In the Raiders' 31-13 road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Lumpkin recorded the first sack of his NFL career. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive lineman totaled five tackles (four solo, one assisted) on the day.
Tim Masthay | #8 P | Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Masthay tied a season-high with six punts in Green Bay's loss at Buffalo. The former First Team All-SEC performer averaged 42.8 yards per punt, with Sunday's long coming in at 63 yards.
This week in the NFL, Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford returned to the playing field after spending the last three weeks on the sideline with a sprained left knee. In a rematch with First Team All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy--of whom Warford got the better in their one-on-one matchup as a rookie last season--the former Wildcat emerged victorious. The Lions defeated McCoy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 34-17.
In addition to Warford's successful return from the first injury of his entire football career, Week 14 marked former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews' first official game as an active NFL player. The 6-foot-5 Los Angeles native was promoted from the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad on Saturday after two seasons in the Canadian Football League (where he was named most outstanding rookie in 2012). The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (10-3)
In a tight 43-37 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Cobb caught four passes for 58 yards. With Cobb held without a touchdown for the past four weeks, Kentucky's all-time total TD leader has seen his 2014 receiving touchdown total stagnate at 10 (tying him for fourth in the NFL).
Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (10-3)
Despite a rib injury that left Tamme questionable for Sunday's game with the Buffalo Bills, the Danville, Ky. native caught one pass for 10 yards. However, Tamme also lost a fumble in the Broncos' 24-17 win over Buffalo.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11)
In yet another loss by the Titans, Williamson totaled six total tackles (three solo, three assisted) against the New York Giants. Tennessee fell to New York, 36-7.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11)
Kentucky's veteran half of its Titans linebacker duo outshone its rookie half by a two-tackle margin on Sunday. Woodyard combined for four solo tackles and four assists in Tennessee's blowout loss to the Giants.
This week in the NFL, former Wildcat Ricky Lumpkin rejoined the ranks of Kentucky's active NFL alumni with a promotion from the Oakland Raiders' practice squad to their 53-man roster for the second time in two seasons. The 6-foot-4 defensive tackle went undrafted in 2011, but spent time with the Raiders and Arizona Cardinals over the past three seasons.
With NFL standouts Danny Trevathan and Larry Warford still sidelined by injury, Kentucky's NFL Cats went a combined 4-7 in Week 13.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (9-3)
Cobb caught seven passes for 85 yards in Green Bay's monumental 26-21 win over the New England Patriots. Even without scoring a touchdown, Cobb is still tied for third place among league leaders with 10 receiving touchdowns on the season.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (7-5)
Despite his team's offensive struggles, Johnson finished with three catches for 28 yards (posting a 9.3-yard-per-catch average) in the 49ers' 19-3 Thanksgiving loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-10)
Despite another solid defensive performance from Woodyard, the Titans dropped their sixth consecutive game of the season. Woodyard totaled four tackles (three solo, one assist) in Tennessee's 45-21 loss to the Houston Texans.
"I am very happy for Neal to earn a head coaching job and believe Troy has made an outstanding hire," Stoops said. "Congratulations to Neal and his family and I appreciate his hard work at Kentucky."
On Saturday, the Wildcats played in a classic of their own, though the result didn't go in their favor.
"I know people that paid to come watch this game got their money's worth," Mark Stoops said, "because that was a good football game."
In a back-and-forth affair that featured some pregame pushing and shoving and seven lead changes -- four in the fourth quarter alone -- UK (5-7) fell to rival Louisville (9-3), 44-40. The loss left the Wildcats a win shy of bowl eligibility.
"Obviously very disappointed in the outcome of this one, disappointed for our seniors to come up short in such an important game for us," Stoops said. "I was proud of the way our team fought. I felt like our guys played with great energy, great passion and really did a lot of good things. Give them credit, give Louisville credit: They made plays when they had to to win the football game and they beat us."
The thing is, the Cats made their share of plays too.
There were the two defensive touchdowns, the first scored on a 40-yard interception return by Fred Tiller and the second on a fumble forced by Bud Dupree that fellow senior Mike Douglas scooped and carried 30 yards for a touchdown. The plays gave UK leads in the second and fourth quarter, respectively, but Kyle Bolin (21-of-31 passing for 381 yards and three touchdowns) and DeVante Parker (six catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns) were too much to handle.
There were Stanley "Boom" Williams' two touchdowns - the second giving UK a 40-37 lead with just 5:31 to go - big fourth-quarter throws by Patrick Towles after a slow start and clutch catches by Demarco Robinson and Joey Herrick. The UK offense had a shot at game-winning play on its final drive, but Gerod Holliman tied an NCAA record with his 14th interception on a fourth-down pass by Towles to seal the outcome.
For Williams, who finished with 126 rushing yards to go with his two touchdowns, the day only served to make him eager to play in the game again.
"It's one of the biggest rivalries in college football history," Williams said. "It's real fun getting to play against crosstown rivals, going out there with my teammates and going to battle with those guys."
Unfortunately, Saturday will be the last time the group plays as currently constituted. Dupree, Za'Darius Smith and other seniors will move on to pursue professional careers, whether in football or elsewhere.
"It's very emotional," said Dupree, who had seven tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. "My last college game and I had a chance to win and just couldn't pull through. The team just has to learn from it for next year coming in."
Dupree's tone was the consensus among UK players and coaches: a combination of disappointment and looking to the future.
"Growing up a Kentucky fan, this is a game you dream about playing," said Towles, who was intercepted twice in 29 attempts in throwing for 176 yards against a tough Louisville defense. "And we had an opportunity and I didn't get it done today. We gotta go back to work so I will get it done next year."
This time next year, no one wants to be done playing football, but there's a certain satisfaction that comes with leaving everything on the field on the heels of two lopsided losses.
"I think it was important to come out and play against a very good football team on the road, with our rival," Stoops said. "We had lost some games. That was pointed out, and our guys responded and played a hard-fought game. We tried and competed at a high level."
The effort served as a reminder of the progress the Cats have made in Stoops' second season. Though the season ended with six losses in a row, UK won more games in 2014 than in the previous two seasons combined while also dropping tough battles to the likes of Florida, then-No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 22 Louisville.
"I don't think you can let the ending of the season cloud the progress that's been made," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
"We've definitely made progress and the offseason starts tomorrow for us," Williams said. "We're going to get to work and we're just going to improve this offseason and get better and go into next season with a winning mentality, approach every game right."
While Williams and the UK returners are getting back to work, Dupree will be preparing for the NFL Draft, where he is projected as a first-round selection. He'll be following the program he helped begin to rebuilt nonetheless.
"I'm confident in Coach Stoops and the program and the staff members," Dupree said. "I see a bright future for this team, for this program and big-time recruits coming in. The only thing they can do is just keep going up. We've been to the bottom. The only thing they can do is keep going up."
Stoops, meanwhile, will hit the recruiting trail looking to finalize another good signing class. Reaching a bowl game would have been a boost, but the path forward remains the same.
"As you look at this season, I never hid from the fact that it was important to win one of these games down the stretch," Stoops said. "We didn't get that done. We'll continue to work. We'll reset ourselves and go back to work. But I am proud of this group. I'm proud of the seniors. I know we've improved."
Mark Stoops hoped a bye week would reenergize his team, leading to a strong week of preparation and good performance in its season finale.
So far, he's getting exactly what he wanted.
"It's been a good week of practice so far," Stoops said. "The guys are very energetic, worked hard, enthusiastic. So it's been good. Excited about the opportunity here this week."
The opportunity for Kentucky is two-fold.
To begin with, the Wildcats get to face rival Louisville at noon ET on Saturday in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. To that end, UK continued its educational series on the rivalry by watching a handful of clips from Governor's Cup games past.
Other coaches might downplay the importance of the matchup, but not Stoops. He sees UK-UL as an important part of what it means to be at Kentucky.
"It's a rivalry," Stoops said. "We want to embrace that rivalry. We want kids to be a part of that and know when they come play at Kentucky that Louisville's a big game for us."
Stoops and his staff have needed some educating too, since most have still only been in Lexington for less than two years. Included in that group is defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who has quickly learned about the intensity of the rivalry.
"Well, one thing that I've learned is this is as big a rivalry as anywhere I've been," Eliot said. "The players want to win. The fans want to win. It's something that is special and it's something you look forward to."
At the same time, the Cats are looking forward to their last chance to secure their sixth win and clinch bowl eligibility. Stoops, just as he hasn't hidden from the magnitude of UK-UL, has acknowledged the importance of reaching that plateau for his program.
Even so, that's not the message he's delivering to his team. He simply sees a group that deserves to keep playing football.
"I haven't said anything about a playoff, but I've said it's pretty self-explanatory," Stoops said. "If we win, then we're going to play another game and, I've told them, they deserve it. They've worked hard, they've done a lot of good things and worked hard for a solid year leading up into this season and did some good things. So I'd like the opportunity for them."
Before that opportunity, the Cats will tweak their game-day schedule slightly for Thanksgiving. They will practice earlier than normal on Thursday before eating a meal together. After that, Stoops has given them the night off, with an option to stop by his house in the evening.
Stoops and his wife Chantel are prepared for a crowd.
"We're going to have a dinner right afterwards for the whole group and then I told them my house was open," Stoops said. "So I may get anywhere from two to a hundred."
At this late stage of the season, it's almost unheard of for a coach to allow his quarterback to be hit in practice. So was Mark Stoops trying something drastic before Kentucky's season finale?
No, it turns out. It's just Louisville week.
"No red in this facility this week," Towles said.
With UK (5-6) set to travel to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for a matchup with the No. 22 Cardinals (8-3) at noon ET on Saturday, Towles and his fellow quarterbacks decided in a walkthrough they wanted no part of wearing their archrivals' color. With the Ft. Thomas, Ky., native set to start against Louisville for the first time, it just wouldn't feel right.
"I've been a Kentucky fan my whole life, so this is a game that I look forward to every year," Towles said. "Being able to play in it is truly special for me and my family, so I'm excited - we're all excited to go down there and play 'em."
The excitement is team-wide, but Towles is somewhat of a rarity among the Wildcats when it comes to intimate familiarity with the heated UK-U of L rivalry. He's one of just 10 players on the two-deep depth chart from Kentucky, meaning the coaching staff has had some work to do in helping a young UK team understand the passion behind the annual battle for the Governor's Cup.
"We're giving them different things each (day) and having former players talk to the team a bit and just get them educated on (the rivalry) a little bit and the importance of it," Stoops said. "I don't think there should be any lack of motivation for our team. Just the opportunity to go in there and get our sixth victory, which we all know is very important to us and this program. So I think our team is motivated, but it's also good to educate them on the series and get them caught up to speed on the rivalry."
As Stoops said, UK is trying to manage the emotions of playing its biggest rival and working toward its sixth win, which would make the Cats bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Stoops expects his team to handle it all just fine, especially with the open date UK had to recuperate mentally and physically beforehand.
"We'll prepare and be excited to go play," Stoops said. "But there is no reason to be tense or to go play tight. I don't anticipate that. I'd like to see us play with that great passion and energy that we did for most of the season."
The Cardinals can be expected to do the same.
"They're playing some very good football coming off a great win at Notre Dame," Stoops said. "So Louisville's a very good football team, very well-coached and playing at a high level right now."
That starts on defense, where the Cardinals rank seventh nationally in total defense at 290.2 yards per game and 14th in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. Only unbeaten and defending national champion Florida State has managed more than 28 points or better than 4.1 yards per carry against U of L.
"They've got one of the top defenses in the country," Towles said. "Bring a lot of pressure. They're really good at defensive end. They've got a lot of really good players, and of course they've got that defensive back with all those interceptions."
That defensive back is safety Gerod Holliman, who, with 13 interceptions, is one pick away from tying a national record that has stood since 1968.
"I think some of that is schematic," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "You have to give some of the credit to their defensive staff. He's a free player quite a bit. But the thing about it is he breaks on the ball really well and he's got good ball skills."
Louisville's pass rush doesn't hurt his cause either.
The Cardinals are ninth nationally in sacks, racking up 3.27 per game. Senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (6.5 sacks) anchors the Cardinal pass rush while also helping to hold opponents to 88.5 yards per game on the ground, good for third nationally.
"They've rushed the passer so well you've got to keep them honest (with the run)," Brown said. "But I think that's important. We've got to do a good job, not only at the offensive line position, but our tight ends, fullbacks have to be involved in the game plan and we've gotta, our running backs have got to run."
On the other side of the ball, UK will contend with a U of L offense that has handed the reins to athletic freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon after a season-ending injury to Will Gardner. The Cardinals also have a stable of running backs that features three runners with at least 378 yards and four touchdowns, as well as a receiving corps boosted by the return of DeVante Parker.
In just five games in 2014, Parker has 29 catches for 555 yards.
"Certainly them having DeVante back outside is a real weapon," Stoops said. "He is a fantastic football player and a guy you've constantly got to have your eye on and know where he's at."
Whether it's in defending Parker or otherwise, it's all hands on deck for a UK team that's as healthy as it's been in a long time after a much-needed bye.
"We'll need to go in there and play our very best," Stoops said. "I expect our team to do that. We've had a great bye week and we're off to a great start here this week. Guys are energized and working extremely hard. Again, we'll need to improve to go in there and compete at a high level with Louisville."
Part of having a roster made up of 64 percent underclassmen creates a consistent learning environment in the Nutter Training Facility.
With Kentucky preparing for its regular-season finale at No. 23 Louisville at noon on Saturday, the Wildcats are getting a lesson in what the UK-UL in-state rivalry means to the Commonwealth and the fan bases from each school.
The Wildcats have a total of 77 underclassmen on their 120-man roster and only 10 of the 58 players listed on the depth chart entering the finale at UL are from the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
"So excited about rivalry week, been educating the guys all week on the rivalry," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We educated them today about the Governor's Cup, what it means. Some of the coaches talked about their personal memories. Some of the in-state guys are going to talk tomorrow. We're just taking a little bit of our offensive meeting and trying to educate them, especially for some young guys from out of state, educating them, teaching them what a rivalry is and a little about Kentucky-Louisville."
Kentucky (5-6) enters the rivalry tilt with a lot more at stake than bragging rights. UK is seeking to earn its sixth win to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
While any rivalry game brings the challenge of managing the added emotion, UK's matchup in the Derby City will present a unique challenge for Brown's offense.
"Obviously Louisville is very, very talented on defense," Brown said. "They're well coached. They play hard. That's the thing that struck me last year preparing for them -- and I know it's a different coaching staff, but it's a lot of the same kids -- they really get after it. They rise up every week. And they play good, solid defense, as good as anybody we've played."
The Wildcats will be seeking to reestablish an offense that shined early in the season in games with UT Martin, Florida, South Carolina and ULM, and 31-point performances in losses to No. 1 Mississippi State and Georgia over UK's last four games.
After UK had an eight-game stretch - including seven against SEC foes - the Wildcats benefited from a bye on Saturday, giving UK fresh legs entering the matchup at UL.
"The bye was good for us. We needed it," Brown said. "I think we were getting worn down there. We used last week to kind of re-engergize, coaches and players. We had a good, spirited workout today, do that tomorrow and then kind of wind down and get ready for Saturday at noon."
With two former Cats sidelined by injury and one former Cat enjoying his team's bye week, Week 12 saw five Kentucky NFL alumni emerge victorious and four go home with the sour taste of defeat.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (8-3)
In a game that concluded on a much tighter note than expected, Cobb hauled in four receptions for 58 yards in a 24-21 win over the Minnesota Vikings. For the second consecutive week, Cobb failed to reach the end zone, leaving his season touchdown total untouched at 10 (tied for fourth most in the NFL).
John Conner | #38 FB | New York Jets (2-9)
Conner, who came to the University of Kentucky as a walk-on in 2005, has been considered one of the best blocking backs in football since his days in college. As many teams stray away from the fullback position in favor of today's modern rushing attack, Conner still continues to find his way onto an NFL roster each season. "The Terminator" recorded his first rushing attempt since 2011 with a 13-yard run in Monday's 38-3 loss to the displaced Buffalo Bills.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9)
For the sixth time in his rookie season, Williamson totaled at least six tackles in one contest. The 6-foot-1 Tennessee native made five solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' 43-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9)
For the fourth time this season, Woodyard totaled at least eight tackles in one contest. The seven-year NFL veteran matched Williamson's tally of five solo tackles, but surpassed his Titans teammate with three assisted tackles in Tennessee's fifth consecutive loss.