Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot
Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot
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Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot
Anyone who has seen him yell at an official after a bad call -- and seen his facial expressions in said tirades -- can attest to that.
And still he'd never experienced as a head coach the emotional ups and downs, and ultimately highs, that he did in Saturday's 45-38 comeback win over South Carolina.
"It's hard to describe how much pride you feel for the team, just for everybody in our organization," Stoops said. "You know to fight back through that adversity. To start down 14 points, and be down 14 in the fourth ... it just felt uphill the whole game. Felt frustrating."
But who could blame the UK coach, who after not winning a Southeastern Conference game during his debut season last year now has won two in a row, and has his team very much in the thick of the race for the SEC East title, for getting a bit overwhelmed after the game?
The manner in which Stoops' team won, coming back from not one, but two 14-point deficits, including that score line in the fourth quarter would be enough to overwhelm just about anyone.
"It's really hard to put into words," Stoops said. "I think just I feel very proud of the whole group and all the work that we put in. And it was emotional. I felt overwhelmed at times when I was on that field. It happened so quick.
"I was frustrated a lot of the night. But just very grateful, I think, is the thing that comes to mind and appreciate the guys in that locker room."
And so after celebrating on-field postgame with thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation, talking to his team and giving away the game ball to a current player for the first time in his career, Stoops soaked in just how much Saturday's win meant.
He apparently enjoyed the moment so much that he didn't want it to end. So he actually extended his press conference to two extra questions because he was "enjoying it too much."
Perhaps adding just a measure of the feel-good factor to the win was who was standing across from him on the opposite sideline. The relationship between the Stoops and Spurrier families has been well-documented as Mark's brother Bob -- now the head coach at Oklahoma -- was the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier on the staffs that built Florida into one of the nation's premier programs in the 1990s.
The frustration Stoops spoke so much about postgame was in many ways attributable to Spurrier's coaching prowess.
"Coach Spurrier, I have so much respect for offensively, and he went to some--not different things, because he's run all those sets before, but he featured them and kept us out and kept us really off balance," Stoops said. "And it was very frustrating. That's why he's a Hall of Fame coach and won an awful lot of football games."
But the gravity of the moment was not lost on Stoops, and it moved him enough to engage in a time-tested football tradition, which the second-year coach had never engaged in before tonight. Perhaps he never had a big enough win to do it, or perhaps he had never had a player deserving enough of the honor.
But Jojo Kemp's three-touchdown, 131-yard game, which also included a big third-down conversion with barely a minute remaining, was worthy.
"JoJo , (I'm) so proud of JoJo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball.
"Because just sheer determination that he had. He put the team on his back. He was trying to come out of the game once. I said: That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out. And he did.
Dr. Everett McCorvey from the Kentucky School of Music led Commonwealth Stadium in the national anthem prior to Kentucky's 45-38 victory.
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."
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