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UK taking right approach into bye week

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Mark Stoops made it clear after Saturday's loss at Florida that he wasn't satisfied.

He was proud of his team's effort in the triple-overtime defeat, sure, but he knew there was work ahead.

Three days later, the Wildcats are taking the same approach.

"Attitude's good," Stoops said. "I thought the players really took it to heart, really looked at the film, were very critical of themselves and looked at all areas where we all can improve."

During practice on Tuesday -- the second of this bye week -- the Cats spent time on fundamentals, correcting mistakes from the Florida game and getting a head start on preparation for Vanderbilt. Though the Cats have been appropriately hard on themselves, they're also carrying confidence built on Saturday.

"I think each step, each time you get closer and closer, they believe more and more," Stoops said. "And I think most of them listen to you on Monday and I talked about that going into the game: Let's not come in here and say, 'Boy, that was close. Good effort.' Because we're not satisfied with that. I think each time you get closer and closer you put yourself in positions like that and we keep on working and fundamentally getting better, the next time we get that opportunity we'll win."

Because of the bye week, that next opportunity won't come for another seven days. Stoops would rather not wait for Sept. 27.

"If it was up to me, I think I'd love to go play," Stoops said. "Guys are in good spirits. We have a lot left in our tank. We got a lot more we can do, a lot better things and we're excited to go to work. I wish we were playing, but we'll deal with it the way it is."

On a positive note, the Cats will have an opportunity to recover from nagging injuries. Braylon Heard and Javess Blue, for example, played at less than full speed at Florida with ankle injuries, but they should be back for Vandy and Stoops said UK will be "close to a hundred percent" as a team.

The bye week also affords an opportunity for players the coaching staff is planning to redshirt to see more time in practice.

"Got some of our younger guys a lot of work that are potential redshirts," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Drew (Barker) got a bunch of work today. Thaddeus Snodgrass got a bunch of work. T.V. (Williams), who didn't play as much in the last game, got him a lot of work."

All that's important, but the priority is to get ready for the next test.

"You get guys healthy and stuff, but it's essential we treat this week as a week to definitely improve fundamentally," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Vanderbilt's a good team. They went down to Florida last year and beat the crap out of them, so they're tough. Same front seven last year who gave us a hard time last year are back. We can't afford to take anybody lightly, so we're excited about getting prepared for Vandy like we did today and we'll be ready to next Saturday."



Video: Stoops' post-Florida press conference

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Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in UK's loss at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in UK's loss at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops isn't one for moral victories.

But even Stoops, for all his reminders that his tenure will ultimately be judged by wins, had to admit that what he saw from his Kentucky team in a loss at Florida was something special.

" 'We weren't perfect, but it was a perfect effort tonight,' " Stoops said, borrowing a quote from "When The Game Stands Tall," the movie the team watched together on Friday night. "So I really appreciate our players, their commitment to the preparation. They left it all on the field."

As perfect as the effort was, it came up just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss in Gainesville, Fla. In a game that featured more twists and turns than an Austin MacGinnis game-tying field goal, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) came unimaginably close to finally putting an end to a losing streak to Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) that now stands at 28 games.

The outcome was in doubt until Matt Jones ran in the game-winning one-yard touchdown in the third overtime, with both the Wildcats and Gators appearing on the verge of sealing victory on multiple occasions. Seemingly every series of a second half that followed a bruising first half that ended with the score tied 3-3, there was a game-turning play.

Disappointed to have fallen short, the Cats surely spent the flight home to Lexington ruing all the moments that could have made the difference. The most noteworthy was the play that Florida used to force a second overtime period.

With UK leading 27-20, Jason Hatcher tackled Kelvin Taylor for a four-yard loss to set up a fourth and 7 from the Wildcat nine. Receiving the snap just in time to avoid a delay of game, Jeff Driskel fired a pass over the head of Ashely Lowery to Demarcus Robinson -- the only Gator UK never had an answer for -- for a game-tying touchdown.

But for all the plays not made that could have turned the outcome, there were just as many moments that showed exactly how far Kentucky football has come under Stoops' watch.

"I am very proud of them, yes," Stoops said. "Very much, because it's not easy. That's a good football team. I was just very proud of the way we kept responding and facing adversity and coming back and making plays and having a great opportunity to win the game."

It started on defense, where UK held its opponent without a first-half touchdown for the third consecutive game to start the 2014 season. The Gators moved the ball, but Za'Darius Smith and the Cats' physical front seven never wilted as the offense found its feet against a speedy and talented Florida group. Florida only managed a field goal, which UK answered with a gutsy two-minute drill to tie it headed to the locker room.

When the two teams retook the field, it was a whole new ballgame.

"We were trying a lot of things, and we were all scratching and clawing for the best opportunity to stop each other," Stoops said. "The first half it was defense and then all of the sudden there, third and fourth quarter, offenses start moving the ball."

After Patrick Towles threw an interception on the first possession of the second half and Florida quickly capitalized with a touchdown, the sophomore responded in his first road start. He guided back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter, tossing a pair of long scoring passes to freshman Garrett Johnson, who had a coming-out party in his return to his home state with six catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson, however, was but one of six Stoops recruits to touch the ball on offense against Florida. Four more played significant action on the offensive line and eight made tackles on defense.

"That's why we recruited them," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're not scared of this moment. It got loud in there tonight. It got loud. This was a big-time environment. They never blinked and I'm not surprised one bit. I'm zero surprised. That's why we recruited them. That's why a lot of people in the country recruited them."

Towles would later lead the drive that sent the game to overtime. It was a 12-play, 43-yard drive that chewed up 5:10 and eventually set up a 51-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal that first looked good, then appeared to curve outside the goalposts and finally glanced off the upright and through.

"I take my hat off to him," Stoops said of MacGinnis, who made 3-of-4 field goals. "He was clutch. He made some very difficult kicks. I'm proud of him."

Towles seemed poised to turn around and lead the game-winning drive in regulation after the defense came up with a clutch stop.

Pinned deep with a third and 16 on his own one-yard line following a booming punt and an intentional grounding call, Towles calmly dropped back into the end zone and delivered a strike for a first down to Johnson down the middle. Two plays later, he did the same, but the pass glanced off the hands of Ryan Timmons into the waiting arms of Keanu Neal for Towles' third interception.

"I can't put all the interceptions on him," Stoops said. "The one late, down the sideline on third down, that was as good as punt. Threw it up and gave our guy an opportunity to make a play. We had to resort to that a little bit, where we wanted our big wideouts to try to go up and make a play."

More often than not, those big receivers came up with plays. All told, Towles completed 24-of-45 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns to go with 22 rushing yards.

"In here, in this atmosphere. I thought he did a great job keeping plays alive, not taking sacks," Brown said. "I thought he did a really good job running the football when we asked him to do that. I was extremely proud of how he played and it was a big step in his maturation process."

The third of Towles touchdowns was the play of the day for UK and nearly the game winner.

On the first play of overtime, Towles threw in the flat to Stanley "Boom" Williams. The true freshman probed for space, found none and committed what would be a cardinal sin for almost any player in the country, attempting to reverse the field on Florida's defense. For a player of Williams' ability, it proved to be a 25-yard touchdown and the running back's introduction to the SEC.

"Boom's play in the first overtime, that was a terrific individual effort by him to get in the end zone," Stoops said.

Had UK managed a stop on that fateful fourth down, Williams' play would have been the signature moment in the signature win of Stoops' tenure in Lexington. Instead, it's the first loss of 2014, encouraging as certain aspects of it may be.

"Of course we've made progress, but obviously not enough progress or else we would have won that game," Towles said. "Like I said, losing sucks. It's awful. I hate it. It's not something that's going to become a habit around here. We'll watch it tomorrow, we'll get better and we'll be ready to go in two weeks."

Following a bye, UK will return to action in Commonwealth Stadium. In that game against Vanderbilt, the Cats will look to take what they gained from a loss and turn it into what they're really after: a win.

"We're never, ever gonna be happy with moral victories," Stoops said. "But if we lay it on the line like that and prepare like that and go to play like that, then we'll grow up and we'll have more opportunities to win. And when we get in those opportunities, you got to learn from this and you got to make plays."

All quotes via Kyle Tucker, Louisville Courier-Journal


Two days before Kentucky's first road test of the season at Florida, the Wildcats had a light Thursday with a walkthrough and positional meetings.

"Players are focused and we're excited to get on that plane tomorrow," Stoops said. "We got one more run-through tomorrow. We'll have about a 45-minute to an hour practice tomorrow and then we'll get on that bus and load up and head to Gainesville. So putting the finishing touches on a good week."

Returning to practice were running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue. Though they were limited, the two playmakers will be on the flight down to Florida Friday afternoon.

"They were out there a little bit, so we'll see," Stoops said. "Yeah, they're going to make the trip. We'll get something out of them."

Zach West, on the other hand, has been ruled out for Saturday. With the starter at left guard out with a neck injury, Cole Mosier will step in. A week after the Wildcats allowed five sacks to Ohio, Stoops knows they will need to be better against an athletic Gator defensive front.

"We've got to play well," Stoops said. "We've got to do what we do and that's get rid of the football quick when we can, make good decisions. We've got to protect and have all 11 guys on the same page, so. We've worked hard and we'll go down there and they'll play well. They'll improve."

UK looks to 'put it all together' at Florida

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Bud Dupree and UK will take on Florida on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Bud Dupree and UK will take on Florida on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Quick starts, two games in, have become habit for Kentucky.

The Wildcats outscored UT Martin and Ohio by a combined tally of 52-0 in the first half, shutting out back-to-back opponents before halftime for the first time in 26 years.

Repeating the feat against an opponent UK hasn't beaten in even longer is a tall order. That doesn't mean the Cats won't give it a shot against Florida.

"I think it will be very challenging to jump out in front of them like we did the first two (games)," Mark Stoops said. "But that's what we're going to try to do."

The reality is that such a start is unlikely as a young UK team ventures into Southeastern Conference play for the first time at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Making things even tougher is that the Cats will do it in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as the Swamp, against a Florida team always among the nation's most talented.

All that makes for a different kind of test for Kentucky this weekend in Gainesville, Fla.

"We all know we're in for a higher level of competition, and we're excited about that," Stoops said. "The players and coaches will be excited. We'll see where we're at this week."

The Cats have indeed been excited in practice all week, sustaining and even building on the energy that has carried them to a 2-0 start entering a trip to face the Gators (1-0).

"It's our first big test," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It's our first real test this year and this is why you sign up to come to Kentucky to play these kinds of teams in these kinds of atmospheres, so you can tell everybody's got a little extra this week going down there."

Adding fuel to the fire, at least in theory, are the 16 players on UK's roster from the Sunshine State. Even though sophomore running back Jojo Kemp has friends on the Florida team and a big contingent of family members planning to come on Saturday, he says the extra juice isn't about going home.

"It's not because we're from Florida," Kemp said. "It's really because it's an SEC team and just because it's Florida and the streak. A lot of guys just want to really focus on changing the program and like they're next up, so why not Florida to do it? They're next. We're going to out there and play our best game and hopefully we come out with a win."

The streak Kemp refers to, of course, is the 28 years UK has gone without a win over the Gators. There isn't a current Wildcat who was even alive when Kentucky beat Florida 10-3 in 1986, but Towles is aware of the drought and admits he thinks about what it would be like to put an end to it. At the same time, he knows history won't matter much after the opening kickoff.

"I saw somewhere, it's the 2014 Wildcats versus the 2014 Gators, we're not playing Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and those guys," Towles said. "They've got a really good team. We're excited about going down there and giving them all we've got."

In making his first road start, Towles will look to find holes in a Florida defense with a well-established reputation under head coach Will Muschamp.

"Florida is Florida," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "The strength of their defense is speed."

Running a new scheme under former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, the same can be said of the Gators on offense.

Florida has moved to a fast-paced spread attack and it worked to the tune of 65 points and 655 yards in a season-opening win over Eastern Michigan. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, a year removed from a broken leg that ended his 2013 season early, is leading the way.

"I think they're much different offensively this year," Stoops said. "They got some weapons and they got some real speed outside, a great scheme. You know, I think they're much improved offensively."

Florida ran 86 plays against Eastern Michigan, playing with the kind of pace Brown looks for in his own Air Raid offense. Coping with it won't be easy, but UK's defense has racked up some applicable experience in practice.

"Going against our offense, being a tempo offense, has helped us a lot conditioning wise and getting us ready for all the offenses in the SEC that will go no huddle," Bud Dupree said. "The way you stop that, you just have to cut out the big plays first and then they'll slow down."

That might be easier said than done, but the attitude reflects confidence the Cats are carrying with them to Florida.

They get that they aren't a finished product. They understand how intimidating the Swamp is. They know how athletic the Gators are. They also believe all of that can be overcome if they do what they're supposed to.

"We have to play well on all sides to have a chance to win," Stoops said. "We're not dominant enough on offense or dominant enough on defense. When we put it all together, we're good enough to play with anybody. We just have to play well."


UK is facing its first Southeastern Conference test this weekend and dealing the natural boost that follows.

That doesn't mean the Wildcats are shifting their practice habits with Florida looming on Saturday.

"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys seemed to be energetic, flying around, excited. It's just a typical Wednesday, so things went well."

For UK, that means a combination of team and scout work, the second of which being of particular importance given the Gators' change in offensive style this season.

Under former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, Florida has moved to a spread attack that plays at a pace similar to what the UK defense has dealt with in practice all fall camp and through the first two weeks of the season.

"They're a spread offense now," Eliot said. "Last year they were mainly a pro-style offense with some spread looks. And now they are a spread offense with a few pro looks."

Their opener declared a no contest due to inclement weather, the Gators have only played one game this season, a 65-0 thrashing of Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Florida racked up 655 yards on 86 plays in the win, throwing 47 times.

That means it will be all hands on deck for a UK defense playing a different style as well, though due to changes in personnel more than system. With Avery Williamson and his 102 tackles now in the NFL and UK rotating much more freely at linebacker, 16 Wildcats have four or more tackles, led by A.J. Stamps' 14.

That's just fine with Eliot.

"We're not concerned about who makes the play," Eliot said. "It's just that they're made. I would like to see a defense that all those plays are spread out amongst a lot of players."

Video: The acoUstiKats' national anthem performance

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Cats showing 'a little extra' before first SEC test

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Through two weeks, energy has never been an issue for the Kentucky football team.

The Wildcats came out raring to go in wins over UT Martin and Ohio, but they've still managed to find another gear early in preparations for a trip to face Southeastern Conference foe Florida.

"It's our first big test," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It's our first real test this year and this is why you sign up to come to Kentucky to play these kinds of teams in these kinds of atmospheres, so you can tell everybody's got a little extra this week going down there."

For the first time this week, the Cats got a chance to unleash that extra in a full practice on Tuesday.

"First day back, back to real work," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We walked through a little bit on Florida stuff yesterday. Kids are eager. Obviously we've got a lot of Florida kids, so a lot of those guys are eager about getting home."

Running back Jojo Kemp -- a native of DeLand, Fla., less than 100 miles from Gainesville, Fla. -- doesn't dispute that there's a different feel around the Nutter Training Facility this week. He does, however, believe it's for a different reason than the one Brown cited even though he attended more games in The Swamp than he can count growing up.

"We could have been playing Vanderbilt, Mississippi State," Kemp said. "Just because it's SEC time. We're here to change the program around and they're just next up."

The next test will also be the first time UK hits the road after two games in the comforts of Commonwealth Stadium. Towles isn't among a number Wildcats making their first SEC trip, but this will be his starting debut on the road. To prepare for the hostile setting, Towles has spoken to two former Kentucky quarterbacks.

"I went down there my freshman year when Morgan (Newton) played," Towles said. "So I know the atmosphere. It's kind of like a microwave when you walk in at first. It's so hot. So, so hot. We play down there at night, so it won't be as hot, but I've talked to Morgan a little bit about it and Jared (Lorenzen), Jared of course."

Brown says the noise in The Swamp won't be a major factor for a UK offense that relies mostly on nonverbal communication. That's good, because the Cats will have plenty to contend with against the Gator defense.

"Florida is Florida," Brown said. "The strength of their defense is speed. They run well. ... So we've got our hands full, but our kids are excited. It will be a really good - I think Coach (Mark) Stoops said this yesterday - it will be a really good measuring stick for where we are as a young football team right now."

Patrick Towles will lead UK into a matchup at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Patrick Towles will lead UK into a matchup at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Eight times in 12 drives on Saturday, Kentucky's offense reached Ohio territory. All the Wildcats had to show for it, however, was 20 points after a pair of touchdowns to start the game.

The output was enough to send UK to a second straight win to open 2014, but it left Mark Stoops with a clear mandate for an area needing improvement in practice this week.

"Obviously we need to finish better," Stoops said. "We need to finish the games, finish the drives. We can't be leaving points out there as we step up the competition here in the SEC."

The step up is happening right away. A week after UK passed a tougher test against Ohio, the Wildcats travel to Florida for a matchup with the Gators on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

"We all know we're in for a higher level of competition, and we're excited about that," Stoops said. "The players and coaches will be excited. We'll see where we're at this week."

Stoops is accustomed to being in road games against talented opponents -- including multiple games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during his time with Florida State -- but many of his players are not. Relying on so many first-time starters makes going to The Swamp a tall task.

"Well, we have some inexperience, but it is what it is," Stoops said. "It will be a real challenge. I think it's a great venue, obviously one of the best venues in college football. You'll probably hear me say that every road game in the SEC. But it's a great place, a great atmosphere. Very passionate fan base. It will be a real challenge. It's certainly not easy."

It will be a lot harder if the Cats don't capitalize on every available opportunity, which is exactly what happened against Ohio.

One particular stretch of four drives to close the first half and open the second is the perfect illustration. On each of those possessions, UK held the ball for at least eight plays. The Cats gained a total of 179 yards, but mustered only a pair of made field goals and two more misses, one of which came after they had a first and goal at the Ohio two-yard line.

The good news is UK continues to create opportunities. Now it's about making sure they yield points.

"We've got to get it cleaned up," Stoops said. "There's no mystery, you can't get first and goal on the two and get nothing. That we've got to get fixed and we will. We'll work on that. We got to come away with some kind of points there."

Towles' running-game role a balancing act

Patrick Towles' big arm and quicker release might have gotten the attention when he was named UK's starting quarterback, but Stoops has always been quick to point out the sophomore's fleet feet should not be overlooked.

No one at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday needed any such reminder. Towles piled up 59 rushing yards against Ohio on a combination of called keepers and scrambles.

"I thought he made some good decisions," Stoops said. "That helped us at times."

Take out the 34 yards he lost on five sacks and Towles carried 17 times for 93 yards. Impressive as that may be, Stoops knows it's not sustainable given the physical nature of UK's next opponent.

"I don't think we really want to be in the business of going into The Swamp and running him 22 times," Stoops said. "I'm not sure that will be a good idea."

When there are opportunities, Stoops wants Towles to take them. However, Towles can't abandon the pocket too soon when he's under pressure as he was against the Bobcats.

"Then maybe he's got to learn to go through his progressions more as well," Stoops said. "He did come off his progressions a few times a little early, which he had not done."

Injury updates


Late last week, Zach West sustained a "strange" neck injury that forced him to miss the Ohio game.

As of Monday, there's not much more clarity on his condition

"He's bothered by that," Stoops said. "There's some fluid around it. He will not be cleared to play until he gets full range and strength. They have no idea when that will be."

In West's absence, redshirt freshman Cole Mosier stepped in and started at left guard. With the timetable on West's return very much up in the air, Mosier is listed as the starter on this week's depth chart as well.

Also working to return from injury are running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue. Stoops said both are day-to-day, adding "I don't feel great about Blue." Also, wide receiver Jeff Badet (eye/leg) will not play at Florida.

Phillips penciled in as backup QB

UK's plans at the quarterback position, after an offseason of heated competition, have crystallized.

Towles, of course, is the starter, while Reese Phillips is the backup. Drew Barker will redshirt, if circumstances permit.

"If something happened to where Patrick was going to be out for a long period of time, then we would address the situation," Stoops said. "If we can redshirt Drew, that's what we're going to do."

Though the plan is for Barker not to play this season, the true freshman remains very much involved in the meeting room and in practice, where he spends occasional time as the scout-team quarterback.

"Drew has been good," Stoops said. "He's still right in there with all the game planning. He's been involved, engaged. He still gets some reps. It's been good."

Video: Stoops' Florida week press conference

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