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On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke to the media for the final time before Kentucky's matchup with Mississippi State.
Once again, the UK coaching staff left the practice field happy with the Wildcats' work.
"Guys have been good all week," Stoops said. "We've had good energy and good practices, so hopefully we'll get a few mistakes cleaned up. Seems like we have, and looking forward to a great game here Saturday."
A great game and, if Stoops is right, a great atmosphere as well.
Asked about the opportunity to play against the nation's top-ranked team at home, Stoops repeated that he's excited to take the field in front of a big crowd at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, I think we're starting to create a great environment at home and we're looking forward to that, so obviously, always a lot nicer playing at home than at some of these venues in the SEC," Stoops said. "It's pretty challenging. So hopefully we'll get some good home-field advantage and it will help us."
Mississippi State's ranking has added to the anticipation for Saturday's game on the part of fans, but the No. 1 next to the Bulldogs' name only means so much to coaches and players.
"A big game's a big game," Stoops said. "You kind of feel it in the air and the energy and the practice and the focus, so they're really all big games. Once you get to the point where we're doing what we're doing and trying to win a bunch of games, then they're all important. We've got a tough stretch and this is our next one."
The Wildcats, for the first time all season, simply weren't competitive in a blowout in Baton Rouge, which turned out to be even more painful than being one play away as they were in a defeat at Florida.
That said, Patrick Towles wasn't about to let the loss linger. He knew the Cats had to get over it.
"It took me about a day," UK's sophomore quarterback said. "It hurt for about a day. Then if it keeps hurting, you gotta play a different sport."
Towles and his teammates are sticking with football, and it's a good thing because the nation's top-ranked team is coming to Lexington this weekend. UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will host No. 1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC) at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in front of a CBS audience watching at home.
"They've had some impressive wins and they're playing outstanding football," head coach Mark Stoops said. "We're looking to improve this week and eliminate some mistakes if we're going to go out there and compete with a great Mississippi State team."
Calling Mississippi State's wins "impressive" may be somewhat of an understatement. The Bulldogs, No. 1 for the first time in school history as of Oct. 12, became just the fifth team ever to topple three straight top-10 opponents by taking down No. 2 Auburn on Oct. 11 on the heels of wins over No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 8 LSU.
As Stoops said, the Cats have improving to do to compete with a team the likes of Mississippi State. Correcting mistakes has been a priority in practice this week, but Stoops is just as focused on his team's confidence after its first and only lopsided loss of 2014.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well, so now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting," Stoops said. "And it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
By all accounts, the Cats have handled their business in preparing for Mississippi State, striking a balance between learning from their mistakes and moving on from them.
"I think there's a lot of learning points, especially where we're at," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video. Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
The Bulldogs, so far this season, have specialized in forcing miscues by their opponents.
Having built leads of at least 20 points in all six games this season, Mississippi State has had to defend the pass an inordinate amount this season. Consequently, the Bulldogs are last in the league in pass defense, allowing 308.3 yards per game. On the flip side, the Bulldogs are second in the SEC in both sacks and interceptions per game.
"They'll have the best front seven that we've played all year," Towles said. "They're strong. They're the No. 1 team in the country, so they're really good everywhere. We've gotta be sharp, be disciplined and pay attention to details to succeed."
Attention to detail might be even more important on the other side of the ball for Kentucky.
There, the Cats will have to contend with Heisman Trophy frontrunner Dak Prescott. The junior quarterback has been nothing short of dominant, ranking second in the SEC in total offense and fifth in rushing yards. He's accounting for an average of 23.0 points per game -- third nationally -- with his 14 passing touchdowns, eight rushing scores and one receiving touchdown.
"He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country," Stoops said. "He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
That stress, more than anything else, stems from Mississippi State's incredible offensive balance.
The Bulldogs are first in the SEC and No. 10 nationally in total offense at 529.7 yards per game, and they do their damage running and passing in nearly exactly equal measure. Mississippi State has piled up an average of 264.3 yards on the ground and 265.3 through the air.
"That's a credit to what they're doing schematically and a credit to their coaching staff and obviously a very talented group," Stoops said. "I guess it's fair to say it's a little bit unlike anybody we've seen in recent history here. So very balanced and like I said, they present a lot of problems because they can certainly be as physical as they want to be but also have the ability to spread you out and throw it around, too."
In spite of the challenges Mississippi State will present on both sides of the ball, Stoops knows little else will matter if the Cats don't come ready to play.
"I think because we got whupped and because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Kentucky fans have been outspoken in their appreciation for head coach Mark Stoops and his ability to recharge the program with high-level athletes.
The influx of youth has surpassed all expectations throughout the first seven games in Stoops' second year at the helm. And despite a 41-3 letdown at Louisiana State Saturday night, this young team is still holding onto a 5-2 overall record.
It's hard to imagine UK starting the 2014 nearly so well without Demarco Robinson, a player who came to Lexington before Stoops' talent infusion.
"Demarco's a really good player," said sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles following Tuesday's practice. "He's been here; he knows what works, what doesn't; he's quick and he's strong for his size and he makes plays on the football. It's nice having him out there."
The numbers do not necessarily to jump off the page, but Robinson led the Kentucky receiving corps in Saturday's loss with three catches for 52 yards. In fact, he was one of the only players among the skill positions to earn praise from the coaching staff following the disappointment in Death Valley.
"There were some times, like Demarco Robinson got open a lot," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Tuesday. "And there were some times some other people got open. But Demarco, he won more of his battles than anybody else."
His speed, quickness and attention to fundamentals has helped Robinson rank second on the team with 20 catches for 306 yards on the season while averaging 71.6 all-purpose yards per game as a starter at wide receiver and the team's top punt returner.
And while the on-the-field production may be appealing to box score fanatics, the statistics pale in comparison to the daily leadership Robinson brings to the locker room.
"I'm the leader of the wide receiving corps because I'm one of the oldest guys," Robinson said. "I've been through a lot in my time here and I've played against a lot of guys in our league in either high school or college."
Just as any adept leader would, Robinson came off as a bit a bashful in his response when asked to talk about himself. He is an unselfish teammate who, in his senior year, brings an invaluable set of intangibles to a group of young receivers that do not hesitate to look to him for guidance.
Freshman wideout Garrett Johnson came off the practice field on Tuesday with yet another update on Robinson's role as a leader.
"Today I was just out working on some routes during practice and he was right there kind of critiquing me on the fly," Johnson said. "A lot of times we'll sub in and out and as he is coming in he's telling me what I did wrong on the route and giving me tips to improve. And that's an everyday thing with him. He challenges the rest of us to be all-in with everything."
Possibly the most difficult challenge of the entire 2014 season awaits Kentucky this week as the nation's top-raked team rolls into town. The Cats will take on No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
College football experts, as well as previous opponents, have raved about the Bulldogs' front seven. However, not much has been made of the MSU secondary, which is giving up 308.3 yards per game in the air as the Bulldogs have built big leads of at least 20 points in every game this season.
This could be a perfect opportunity for Demarco Robinson and the rest of the Kentucky wide receivers to come up big against Mississippi State.
So what is the message from the senior to the rest of his team?
"Step up," Robinson said. "It's a big game so you've got to show up to the party."
As a defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference, every week presents unique challenges to Kentucky's D.J. Eliot.
Eliot, in his second year directing the UK defense, faces another daunting task on Saturday as the Wildcats play host to Heisman Trophy frontrunner Dak Prescott and the top-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs at 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
"He's an excellent player. He's a veteran player. He's been there," Eliot detailed about MSU's junior quarterback. "He's gotten those reps that's made him such a great player. He can run it; he can throw it; he makes good decisions. It's going to be a huge challenge for us. We've been working really hard to defend him this week. We know they're a great offense and it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
During a junior season that has seen him emerge as the Heisman front-runner, Prescott has rushed for 576 yards and eight touchdowns, passing for 1,478 yards, with a 14-4 touchdown-interception ratio. Prescott presents a unique dual-threat challenge in the molds of recent SEC quarterback greats, including MSU head coach Dan Mullen's star during his time as the offensive coordinator at Florida, Tim Tebow.
"Well, when you're good at both, you've got to be able to defend both, so there's not just one certain area that I'm emphasizing on (this week in preparation)," Eliot said. "I've got to emphasize on all aspects of an offense to defend that offense and a quarterback like this."
Kentucky battled MSU in a tight game in Starkville, Miss., in 2013, with the Bulldogs edging the Wildcats, 28-22. Prescott accounted for three touchdowns - two passing - with his 17-yard TD reception with 36 seconds left in the third quarter serving as the game-winning score.
"You know, it's tough," Eliot described about the challenges of defending Prescott. "It's when they have a quarterback that's a runner that makes it even harder, because a lot of your keys that you teach defensive players are based off of the running back being the runner, so you have to kind of adjust some of that for the week and then on top of that, you just have to be really sound in the pass game. Because as soon as you tighten up for the run game, that's when they try to get one over your head."
Prescott finished the 2013 meeting with Kentucky charting 268 yards on 23-of-34 passing, rushing for 33 yards on 16 carries.
"He's making better decisions and he's getting rid of the ball quicker than he did last year," Eliot said. "He's always been a great runner and they've always had a great quarterback run game plan, but now he's added that dimension of being able to throw the ball and make great decisions as well."
Keeneland Hosting 'see blue.' Day on Friday: Keeneland will be a sea of blue when it hosts "see blue." Day to mark the official start of the University of Kentucky's homecoming weekend on Friday. UK and Keeneland are calling all fans to the post for a pep rally on The Hill, the track's popular tailgating area adjacent to the Keene Barn & Entertainment Center. The fun will begin at noon ET and feature the UK Pep Band playing the UK fight song and "My Old Kentucky Home," the CATS cheer led by the UK cheerleaders and an appearance by the UK dance team. UK students, alumni and faculty receive free general admission to the track and access to reserved Grandstand seating with valid UK IDs. Several UK Athletics teams will be honored during the racing on Friday as well.
As much as he may have wanted to, Neal Brown couldn't just throw away the tape from a blowout at LSU on Saturday.
Even though it's a painful reminder, there's too much to be gained from looking back at the loss for a young Kentucky team.
"If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video," Brown said. "Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
UK began the business of correcting those mistakes on Monday and Tuesday, with a practice on both days. Some tough coaching has resulted, but it's all geared toward preparing the Cats to play their best game on Saturday against Mississippi State.
"When we met yesterday, we were hard on those guys because we've got to be better," Brown said. "In those type of games and those type of atmospheres, we've got to be better. Why did things go wrong? Here's why, now let's go out and fix them."
The issues on offense, according to quarterback Patrick Towles, were across the board. UK, however, is on their way to fixing them.
"We just didn't really make plays," Towles said. "The coaches can call a perfect play, but you need to execute. We didn't execute at any level at any position, which you're going to get beat by everybody if you don't do that. We executed really good today. We'll build on that tomorrow so come Saturday we're ready to rock."
The Cats don't have much choice about whether to be ready if they want to win with the top-ranked Bulldogs coming to town. Both Brown and Towles said Mississippi State's defensive line and linebackers represent a challenge the likes of which UK has not yet seen, even against LSU and Florida.
"I think they've got the best front seven that we've played against, maybe the best in the league," Brown said. "I haven't seen them all yet, but their front seven is very talented, d-tackles, they go four deep there and they're big."
NFL Week 7 pitted six former Wildcats against one another, forcing a jumbled 5-6 record from Kentucky's 11 NFL alumni. Two UK record-holders extended their 2014 touchdown reception total, while two current teammates were each able to force a turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
After putting six points on the board, fourth year Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb was in the midst of a customary Lambeau Leap when one fan shared more of his meal than either individual anticipated. In the end, Cobb walked away with a large ketchup stain splattered across the number of his white shoulder pad, while the fan was left with a plain hotdog full of memories.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (5-2)
With his eighth TD catch of the season, Cobb remains the No. 2 scoring threat in the NFL. Backed by Cobb's six receptions for 121 yards, the Packers won their fourth straight in a 38-17 blowout over Garry Williams' Carolina Panthers.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers (4-3)
Though Johnson's 49ers were blown out 42-17 on Sunday Night Football by the Denver Broncos, Johnson played one of his best games in a San Francisco uniform. The former Kentucky fan favorite finished with five catches for 79 yards and his third touchdown of 2014.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5)
In a discouraging 19-17 loss to the Washington Redskins, Williamson made three solo tackles and two assists before recovering his second fumble in as many weeks.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-5)
Like his rookie teammate, Woodyard showed up big for the Titans defense (despite the loss). Woodyard recorded seven total tackles (four solo and three assisted), as well his second interception of the year.
Winning five of six to open 2014, confidence was never a concern for Mark Stoops.
After Kentucky's only blowout loss of the season at LSU on Saturday, Stoops knows he needs to think about his team's psyche for the first time.
"You worry about it and we need to address it, because, you know, you're going to go through ups and downs, you're going to lose some games," Stoops said. "When you self-inflict against a good team--and I'm not taking anything away from LSU because they flat beat us across the board, but when you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence."
The mistakes, in a 41-3 defeat, were plentiful.
They started on special teams, where a series of errors played a role in all 27 of LSU's first-half points. The Tigers scored on four offensive possessions before halftime and they started, on average, at the UK 42.8-yard line due to three long returns, a personal foul and a squib kick recovered by LSU. The other seven points came on a punt returned for a touchdown.
"There's mistakes that can and will be corrected," Stoops said. "We've all made our mistakes this year, offensively, defensively, special teams. Again, they're magnified against a very talented team on the road, and when you open the game that way, it doesn't set the tone. That's not what you want. So they're magnified but they're things that can and will be fixed."
The miscues on special teams served to nullify a defensive effort by UK that Stoops says was better than the box score may suggest. LSU piled up 303 rushing yards, but the Tigers needed 51 carries to do it and did much of their damage once the outcome was well in hand.
After reviewing the film from Saturday, Stoops was able to see that.
"I don't think we were physically dominated on the field and, again, you just look at, hey, they ran the ball for 300 yards, you're not generally going to win a lot of games when teams run for 300 yards," Stoops said. "We know that's not acceptable but there are a lot of good, physical plays in there by our defensive guys."
UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will carry that awareness into an important week of practice leading up to a home matchup against Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). To compete with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Cats can't afford to let their confidence slip in the least.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well," Stoops said. "So now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
Stoops has a measure of control over that confidence, but he also knows predicting how the LSU loss will affect his team is an inexact science. Even so, he has a pretty clear idea how the Cats will react.
"I think because we got whooped and had because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Stoops impressed by MSU, Prescott
Mississippi State might not have been at the top of the polls when the season began, but Stoops isn't altogether surprised to see they are now.
The Bulldogs belong.
"They're a very talented football team," Stoops said. "You could tell they had a lot of confidence coming into the season just by the way they carried themselves at SEC Media, just listening to them with their quarterback and leadership."
Mississippi State boasts three wins over top-10 teams, all coming in the three weeks before a . The Bulldogs are last in the league in total defense, but much of that has to do with the big leads they've built in every game they've played this season. Along those same lines, Mississippi State ranks second in the conference in both interceptions and sacks.
On offense, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in total yards behind leading Heisman contender Dak Prescott.
"They're playing red hot and it starts with their quarterback," Stoops said. "He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams suffered an undisclosed head injury during the loss at LSU on Saturday. He returned to Lexington with the team and is now recovering, though Stoops had no timetable on his return.
"Things look better, not cleared to play yet, obviously," Stoops said. "I'll wait until the doctors tell me he can get on the field but, I think, yeah, things are looking better. When he will be cleared to practice or play I have no idea."
Williams took to Twitter on Sunday, a welcome development after the running back stayed on the ground for a number of minutes after taking a big hit on a kick return in Baton Rouge, La.
Nobody said the road would be easy but believe we will bounce back..!!-- Stanley Williams (@boom_that_guy) October 19, 2014
Thanks for all the support from my teammates coaches and the BBN-- Stanley Williams (@boom_that_guy) October 19, 2014
Game time for Missouri set
UK's game at Missouri on Nov. 1 will kick off at 4 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.