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Stakes higher as UK begins South Carolina week

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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."

UK football depth chart -- South Carolina week

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Offense

Tight end
85 Steven Borden, 6-3, 246, Sr-1L
80 Ronnie Shields, 6-5, 254, Sr-3L

Left tackle

77 Darrian Miller, 6-5, 292, Sr-3L
73 Kyle Meadows, 6-5, 294, Fr-RS

Left guard
68 Nick Haynes, 6-5, 319, Fr-RS
74 Cole Mosier, 6-6, 348, Fr-RS
75 Zach West, 6-4, 318, Jr-2L

Center
72 Jon Toth, 6-5, 301, So-1L
57 Zach Myers, 6-3, 287, So-Sq

Right guard
69 Ramsey Meyers, 6-5, 300, Fr-RS
64 Max Godby, 6-4, 298, Sr-1L

Right tackle
70 Jordan Swindle, 6-7, 306, Jr-2L
73 Kyle Meadows, 6-5, 294, Fr-RS

Wide receiver
9 Demarco Robinson, 5-10, 158, Sr-3L
6 Blake Bone, 6-5, 198, Fr-HS

Wide receiver
1 Ryan Timmons, 5-10, 195, So-1L
82 T.V. Williams, 5-10, 160, Fr-HS

Wide receiver
8 Javess Blue, 6-0, 191, Sr-1L
2 Dorian Baker, 6-3, 197, Fr-HS
81 Rashad Cunningham, 6-4, 225, Jr-1L

Wide receiver
87 Joey Herrick, 6-1, 197, Jr-1L
19 Garrett Johnson, 5-11, 176, Fr-HS

Quarterback
14 Patrick Towles, 6-5, 238, So-1L
12 Reese Phillips, 6-2, 218, Fr-RS or 7 Drew Barker, 6-3, 216, Fr-HS

Fullback

39 D.J. Warren, 6-0, 251, Sr-3L
10 Jeff Witthuhn, 6-3, 246, So-Sq

Running back
5 Braylon Heard, 5-11, 189, Jr-Tr or 3 Jojo Kemp, 5-10, 194, So-1L

Defense

Defensive end
94 Za'Darius Smith, 6-6, 263, Sr-1L
91 Farrington Huguenin, 6-4, 275, Jr-2L

Defensive tackle
90 Melvin Lewis, 6-4, 320, Jr-JC
69 Matt Elam, 6-7, 375, Fr-HS

Defensive tackle

50 Mike Douglas, 6-4, 288, Sr-3L
67 Cory "C.J." Johnson, 6-3, 299, Jr-JC or 96 Regie Meant, 6-4, 286, Fr-RS

Defensive end/Linebacker
6 Jason Hatcher, 6-3, 242, So-1L
47 Jabari Johnson, 6-1, 276, Jr-1L

Defensive end/Linebacker
2 Alvin "Bud" Dupree, 6-4, 264, Sr-3L
41 TraVaughn Paschal, 6-4, 257, Sr-2L

Middle linebacker
45 Josh Forrest, 6-3, 236, Jr-2L
41 TraVaughn Paschal, 6-4, 257, Sr-2L

Weak-side linebacker
22 Khalid Henderson, 6-1, 228, Jr-2L
33 Ryan Flannigan, 6-2, 225, Jr-JC

Nickelback
24 Blake McClain, 5-11, 194, So-1L
29 Kendall Randolph, 6-0, 168, Fr-HS

Cornerback
3 Fred Tiller, 6-0, 170, Jr-2L
11 J.D. Harmon, 6-2, 201, So-1L

Safety
5 Ashely Lowery, 6-1, 220, Sr-3L
15 Marcus McWilson, 6-0, 210, So-1L

Safety
1 A.J. Stamps, 6-0, 199, Jr-JC
28 Eric Dixon, 5-11, 193, Sr-3L

Cornerback
16 Cody Quinn, 5-10, 172, Jr-2L
21 Nate Willis, 6-0, 168, Sr-1L

Special teams

Long snapper
59 Kelly Mason, 6-3, 223, Jr-2L
56 Matt Howard, 5-10, 208, Fr-RS

Holder
13 Jared Leet, 6-3, 196, Jr-2L
12 Reese Phillips, 6-2, 218, Fr-RS

Kicker
99 Austin MacGinnis, 5-10, 168, Fr-RS
95 Miles Buter, 5-9, 160, Fr-HS

Punter
9 Landon Foster, 6-1, 198, Jr-2L
93 Bryan Kirshe, 6-0, 155, Fr-HS

Kickoff returner

18 Stanley "Boom" Williams, 5-9, 200, Fr-HS
5 Braylon Heard, 5-11, 189, Jr-Tr or 11 J.D. Harmon, 6-2, 201, So-1L

Punt returner
9 Demarco Robinson, 5-10, 158, Sr-3L
1 Ryan Timmons, 5-10, 195, So-1L

Defensive masterpiece gives Stoops first SEC win

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Mark Stoops celebrates his first SEC win with Stanley Mark Stoops celebrates his first SEC win with Stanley "Boom" Williams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown had just watched the same game.

The perspectives of the Kentucky head coach and offensive coordinator couldn't have been more different.

"That was a thing of beauty," Stoops said. "For a defensive guy, it was."

"Obviously not a thing of beauty on offense, without question," Brown said.

UK had just toppled Vanderbilt, 17-7. The victory came in spite of a sputtering second half by the Wildcat offense and primarily because of a defense that dominated the Commodores (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) from start to finish. It's understandable, then, that Stoops and Brown saw the game so differently.

What they shared was joy in their first SEC win together and the first for Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) since 2011.

"It's great to get a victory," Stoops said. "It was nice to see our team fight through adversity. It wasn't easy. We had to dig in. We knew it wasn't going to be easy to come away with a victory."

"The positive thing is we did overcome it and win the game," Brown said. "And we're going to enjoy it. It's hard to win an SEC game. ... We're going to be excited about it and then we're going to get this stuff fixed and worry about getting better tomorrow."

The UK defense will try to improve starting on Sunday as well, but the Cats will be hard pressed to outdo their performance on Saturday.

UK didn't allow a single point to the Commodore offense and limited Vanderbilt to eight first downs and 139 total yards, the fewest the Cats have allowed in an SEC game since 1996. The Cats applied constant pressure on Wade Freebeck, sacking the true freshman quarterback four times and hitting him many more.

"Our guys have right now have an attitude and a mentality and a confidence about them, and that goes a long ways," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "These guys are playing very hard and playing together and they really showed it today and I'm very proud of them."

Entering the season and led by seniors Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, the UK defenders styled themselves the "Bad Boys." Stoops won't ever lead a charge to print t-shirts bearing the nickname, but he also can't argue with the results after the Cats didn't allow a touchdown on defense for the fourth straight game.

"I like the way they're playing," Stoops said. "I like their attitude, and they mean well, and I've said it, they've got a good heart and they played with a good mind today. You play with a good mind and a good heart, you got a good chance to play good defense."

If you ask Dupree - who tallied 1.5 sacks in the win - that new mentality has more to do with Stoops and his staff than the Bad Boys moniker. Dupree played on a 2011 defense led Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy that had some special moments - including in that last SEC win over Tennessee - but this 2014 group is at another level because of its belief and balance.

"The difference I see between us and my freshman year is the will to make plays," Dupree said. "Everyone's playing together. It's not just me making plays; it's not Z making plays."

That belief carried the Cats even though the second half brought plenty of moments that made the 59,940 fans in Commonwealth Stadium groan.

UK raced out to a 7-0 lead after a defensive hold and a clinical 99-yard touchdown drive capped by a 20-yard scoring strike from Patrick Towles to Ryan Timmons. Towles completed 9-of-9 passes on the drive and his next two as well, but then made his biggest mistake of the season so far in the shadow of his own goalposts. Looking left, Towles made the wrong read and threw in the flat. Darrius Sims jumped the route and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.

Towles would bounce back, eventually leading a scoring drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the first half to stake UK to a 17-7 lead. But in the second half, Towles held the ball too long too often and fumbled twice in addition to another in the first half.

"It's just a combination of sweat and just gripping the ball too tight," Towles said. "I tend to try to fit balls in windows and grip the ball too tight and it just slips out of my hands. That's on me. That shouldn't happen. It's inexcusable and it won't happen again."

Those miscues and a Demarco Robinson muffed punt put the defense in perilous positions, as Vanderbilt began three fourth-quarter drives in UK territory. The Wildcat defense, however, was undeterred. Relying on blitzes and interceptions by A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson and Ashely Lowery, UK rarely bent and never broke.

"We were able to finish plays, which we've been harping on all offseason, and take advantage of opportunities to get turnovers," Eliot said. "I was very excited about their play this afternoon."

The Cats were opportunistic in moments when they wilted during that conference losing streak. Once again, Dupree credits the UK staff.

"I think it's a different mindset Coach Stoops has just brought to the team," Dupree said. "The last couple years, people gave up in certain situations. When adversity hit, we went the other way. But now we run to the war."

For all UK's defensive dominance, the 10-point margin remained unchanged throughout the second half. The Cats couldn't deliver the knockout blow until the game's final drive, which started with a 10-yard run by Braylon Heard to bring his game-high total to 62. From there, Brown went to the Wildcat formation for eight straight plays.

Jojo Kemp played sparingly before then, but carried seven times in eight plays - handing to Timmons on the other for no gain - and gained all 60 of his rushing yards to run out the clock.

"The worst thing we could have done once it was very clear that we were struggling and that Patrick was struggling was to lose the game, is to really do something, turn the ball over - which we tried, alright - but really to lose the game and try to force-feed something that we weren't doing very well," Brown said.

Facing No. 13 South Carolina next Saturday the Cats will surely need more out of their offense and Towles specifically, but 17 points were enough to trigger a raucous celebration following the win over Vanderbilt. Towles described the volume of the locker-room scene as a "12" on a 1-10 scale. It likely hit a fever pitch when Stoops broke out his dancing shoes for his team for the first time.

Dupree called his coach a "horrible" dancer, but Stoops fortunately has other things going for him.

"He usually jumps up and down (after wins), but this time he tried to do a little dance move," Dupree said. "He's a great coach though."

Video: Stoops after his first SEC win

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Video: Highlights from UK's win over Vanderbilt

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Live blog: Football vs. Vanderbilt

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Live Blog Football vs. Vanderbilt
 

Video: Coaches cut-ups with Neal Brown

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All signs positive for UK as Vandy game approaches

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With a bye week following a triple-overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky has had ample time to suffer a lapse in focus.

Just two days before a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have shown no signs of any such lapse.

"So far, so good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's been a good week of practice. We had a good Thursday today. Guys seemed to be pretty locked in, energetic. So, looking forward to a good game here this weekend."

If anything, the Cats have gone the other way and ramped up the intensity before the Commodores come to town.

"Our coaches have been adamant about just handling our business and doing more this week, being more locked in, spending some extra time around here studying film and doing the little things," Stoops said. "So it seems like they've been very good around here. I hope they are when they leave. We have no reason but to be locked in and hungry for this game."

UK's practice on Thursday was a light one, continuing the coaching staff's new game-week plan of holding a walkthrough and meetings two days before game day and turning up the speed again on Friday. The change was designed to position the Cats to play faster on game day and to this point Stoops has been pleased with the results.

"It seemed to work so far, it really has," Stoops said. "We'll see. Each week is a different test, but I've been pleased. I've felt like we played fast and that was the objective. I felt like we were fresh and played fast in each game. In particular, going down to the Swamp with a big SEC test and playing in the three overtimes. I feel like it's given us what we want."

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