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Blue's big plays give UK boost in win over ULM

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BlueULM_cw.jpeg After experiencing a slight hangover on the heels of an emotional 45-38 victory over South Carolina a week prior, Kentucky found itself down by 11 points to ULM a third of the way through Saturday's second quarter.

Unable to find the end zone all afternoon, the Cats' offense appeared stagnant while backed up to their own 17-yard-line. It was then that senior wide receiver Javess Blue --who had yet to score a touchdown all season after battling a string of injuries --was ready for a change.

"I was looking toward the end zone," Blue said. "I mean, I had to get it. That's the first touchdown, so I had to make it happen."

The very next play, Blue sprinted down the visiting team's sideline. Despite his defender drawing a flag for pass interference, Blue was able to connect on a Patrick Towles pass that landed near UK's 38-yard-line. The rest of the play was history.

"At first, I thought I was going to be out of bounds," Blue said. "That's the reason I jumped for the ball and made sure I stayed in bounds. Then, I saw out of the corner of my eye Garrett Johnson make a great block --a great block. Without him, I probably wouldn't (have) scored."

Thanks to Johnson, Blue had only one defender standing between him and 55 yards of green. Blue accelerated around his only remaining obstacle, coasting into the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown reception. With the catch, Blue became the only player in school history to record two receptions of at least 83 yards. Blue, who led the Wildcats in receiving yards as a junior, made an 88-yard catch against Miami (Ohio) last season.

Blue's explosiveness makes him a threat to score on any given play. In fact, Blue's record-setting touchdown reception wasn't even the best catch he made on Saturday.

Once Kentucky turned the game around and led ULM 24-14 midway through the third quarter, Blue made what Towles called the best catch ever made from one of his own passes.

"I was telling those guys on the sideline, I was in shock --not in shock because he can make plays like that --but it was awesome," Towles said. "When I throw a ball like that, and I can have a guy make that kind of play for me, it's great. It's great."

Battling a one-on-one matchup in the end zone, Blue extended one arm, bobbled Towles' 21-yard pass, and snagged the ball with his right hand and shoulder pad. The 6-foot JUCO transfer secured the catch and fell in-bounds for his second touchdown of the contest.

"What was going through my head," Blue said, "was that I had to make the catch. It was either that or I get yelled at from a coach... I just squeezed the ball tight and prayed that I was in-bounds, basically."

The remarkable display astounded even Blue himself.

"Yeah, I (was surprised) at first," Blue said. "I was like, 'Where's my other arm?' Then again, I had to think about it. Cornerback has my (left) arm, so I just had to reach for (the ball) with my right."

After a promising first season in a Kentucky uniform, Blue was forced to sit out the entire offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. He then sprained his ankle in the season-opening win over UT-Martin, causing him to miss both the next game versus Ohio, and play limited snaps in UK's lone loss at Florida. Upon his return, the Wildcats have an element of explosiveness that no other player brings to the table.

"It's like I'm back right now," Blue said. "So, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be making more plays as time goes on."

Blue finished the game with three catches for 109 yards. His outstanding playmaking ability has the Cats (5-1, 2-1 SEC) in position for bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.

"That's an amazing feeling," Blue said. "We couldn't get to a bowl last year, so we had made it a goal... That's what we promised the fans, so we're making that promise a reality."

Dupree's play, presence shakes UK from slow start

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Bud Dupree had 1.5 sacks and a blocked field goal in UK's 48-14 over ULM on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Bud Dupree had 1.5 sacks and a blocked field goal in UK's 48-14 over ULM on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree had seen the look too many times not to know exactly what was going on.

Through the first three seasons of his Kentucky career, Dupree had never played on a winning team. When something went wrong, the Wildcats couldn't weather the storm. Instead, they shut down.

Seeing beginnings of the same reaction as ULM built an early lead on Saturday, Dupree wasn't about to stand idly by.

"Once you see guys start holding their heads down, you don't play football," Dupree said. "That's not a team we are anymore, holding our head down when we get beat."

There Kentucky was, trailing to the visiting Warhawks. The energy in Commonwealth Stadium during an upset of South Carolina just a week prior was gone. After ULM scored to move ahead 14-3 on the final play of the first quarter, Dupree gathered his teammates and delivered an impassioned message,

"If you get beat, so be it," Dupree said. "You gotta go on to the next play. I was just emphasizing moving on to the next play and executing the calls. No matter what our coach calls, just execute it. If you think he's wrong, just do it anyway. Just play with your head on fire and just play hard."

Taking a cue from their senior leader, the Cats responded in a big way. UK would pitch a shutout the rest of the way, scoring the final 45 points in a 48-14 victory to move to 5-1.

"Once again, it wasn't the prettiest thing early, but our guys hung in there," Mark Stoops said. "Faced a little adversity, and came up with some big plays on both sides of the ball when we needed it."

Even before his speech in the huddle, Dupree was making more than his share of those big plays.

Seemingly the only defender coming out with the intensity Stoops demands, Dupree had half a sack, another tackle and a blocked field goal even as ULM built that lead in the first quarter. If not for him, that early hole would likely have been deeper.

"Bud is an amazing player and a great leader and takes the game very seriously," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It doesn't surprise me that even though others may have been flat that he wasn't. With his leadership, I think everybody else followed."

Dupree finished the game with five tackles, that blocked field goal, a quarterback hurry and 1.5 sacks, moving into a tie for second with Dennis Johnson on the UK career list and adding to his Southeastern Conference-leading total among active players. Clearly, he's always been capable of dominant efforts like the one he turned in Saturday, but the kind leadership he displayed in shaking the Cats out of their post-field-rushing malaise is something he's developed.

"I take it upon myself," Dupree said. "Being a leader of the team, if it's not going well I have to make a play and I have to make sure all the guys are on the same page and worrying about the bad plays that's happening and move on to the good. Once I told everybody to move on, keep on moving on, things started clicking."

No unit clicked better than the defensive line.

To start, Stoops and Eliot dialed up the blitzes that have become UK's signature, especially on third down. ULM, however, was ready to capitalize with slants and other quick-hitting plays, converting 4-of-6 third downs in the first quarter. Adjusting midgame, the coaching staff elected to drop the linebackers and defensive backs and let the linemen loose.

"Once we started realizing kind of what some of their game plan was ... we started playing some coverage, and that let d-linemen rush, and they had a hard time blocking them," Stoops said.

Using that approach, UK piled up six sacks -- all by linemen or hybrid ends/linebackers, save for a sack Josh Forrest shared with Dupree in the first quarter -- and 12 tackles for loss.

"Well, we did put the d-ends in better positions to pass rush based on what we saw that they were doing," Eliot said. "That happened pretty quick into the game. And after that is when I think we started to get a lot of good pressure."

The good pressure eventually flustered ULM quarterbacks Pete Thomas and Brayle Brown into mistakes, and UK's back-end defenders were ready to capitalize. Josh Forrest and Marcus McWilson each had interception returns for touchdown, giving UK four defensive scores on the season and three in the last five games.

"Obviously, they were big in both games, really at times when we needed them," Stoops said. "For sure in the South Carolina game, but even in this game, it came at the right time. That's nice to see us have the ability to make big plays on both sides of the ball and in special teams."

Forrest's pick-six was particularly timely, coming barely a minute after Javess Blue scored an 83-yard touchdown on a pass from Patrick Towles. On the strength of those two touchdowns and another late in the second quarter from Towles to Blake Bone, the Cats turned that early 11-point deficit into a 24-14 lead in a span of less than five minutes.

"I think it does show some maturity of hanging in there when things don't go well," Stoops said. "Keep on battling, believing in each other and believing in what we can do on both sides of the ball and special teams."

In spite of that belief, a complete game still eludes the Cats.

Blue had his long touchdown and another one-handed 21-yard score sure to make the SportsCenter Top 10 and Stanley "Boom" Williams had 179 all-purpose yards, including a 58-yard touchdown burst, but UK had just 352 yards on 59 plays. Towles was mostly efficient, completing 16-of-28 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns, but missed on some chances, while the ground game never got going outside of Williams.

"We weren't as consistent as we needed to be," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "At the end of the day we got done what we needed to get done. We didn't have a great week of practice. We didn't handle prosperity overly well, but with all that said we're 5-1 after six games."

That's the first time a Kentucky team has been able to say that since 2007. And to take things a step further, the Cats now find themselves in a four-way tie for the SEC East lead in the loss column, to which Stoops said, "I love it. I love it. Let's go."

In spite of all that, Dupree sees unrealized potential in his team heading into a trip to face LSU next Saturday.

"I don't even think we're close," Dupree said. "Last week we had a bad week defensively. This week we came out slow. It better be this week. It better be this week so we can go out and get a win."

Dupree, no doubt, will take an active role in pushing his teammates to make that happen.

Video: Forrest and Blue on UK's win over ULM

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Video: Stoops' post-ULM press conference

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Video: Highlights from UK's win over ULM

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Live blog: Football vs. ULM

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Live Blog Football vs. ULM

Instincts, leadership making Stamps an instant star

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A.J. Stamps has a team-high three interceptions through five games of his debut season at Kentucky. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics) A.J. Stamps has a team-high three interceptions through five games of his debut season at Kentucky. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics

It was somewhat forgotten because of the second half that followed, but A.J. Stamps made a play against South Carolina that may have turned the game.

The Gamecocks were driving in the final minute of the first half, seemingly poised to build on a 17-14 lead, but Stamps had other ideas. On first down from the UK 15, the safety read quarterback Dylan Thompson to perfection, breaking on the ball and intercepting the pass.

By appearances, it seemed as if Stamps had seen the play dozens of times in practice. In reality, he was simply relying on the instincts that have made Stamps a revelation in his first season at UK

"That was my first time seeing that play on the field," Stamps said.

UK would cash in on Stamps' pick and 50-yard return with a long field goal to tie the game at half. The rest, of course, is history, as the Wildcats would go on to score the upset and move to 4-1 on the season.

Stamps, with his knack for diagnosing plays, has been a key cog for a much-improved Kentucky defense. His three interceptions are not only a team high, but they also match UK's entire 2014 total.

Perhaps just as importantly, Stamps' knack for trusting his instincts has earned him a leadership role on the gridiron, but it doesn't stop there.

"(Being a leader means) just coming out, being vocal, and filling (the) leadership shoes... and just helping my teammates out on and off the field," Stamps said.

Stamps came to Kentucky this season as a junior-college transfer from East Mississippi Community College. After winning a national championship as part of the NJCAA's second-ranked defense, Stamps brought a winner's mentality to Lexington, where second-year head coach Mark Stoops' rebuilding effort was already in motion.

"(The coaching staff) talked to me about the future and how bright (it) is... I saw the players that were here that they were counting on," Stamps said. "I just felt comfortable with the coaches and the players, and that's what kind of sold me on coming here to Kentucky."

Without even playing a game, the junior standout's presence could be felt almost instantly.

"The winning mentality that came in this year... kind of influenced some of the players that already were here," Stamps said. "It kind of rubbed off on them and they had a winning mentality, too."

After graduating from JUCO in December, Stamps immediately enrolled at UK last January. According to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, Stamps' early admission provided him with coveted additional time to prepare for the upcoming season.

"He understands our defense very well," Eliot said. "He was here in the spring. He got a whole spring ball. He was here all summer, and had earned that starting position pretty quick into spring ball. So, he'd been getting the (first-team) reps for a long time."

Along with natural instincts and exceptional athletic ability, preparation is what allows Stamps to play defense with such a high football IQ. The amount of time Stamps spends studying the game off the field leads to an increased comfort level during game situations.

"I feel much more comfortable," Stamps said. "(I'm) getting to know the playbook, as well. We make a couple tweaks here and there every week. I just put a lot more effort into studying (them) and actually sitting down and watching film."

Stamps' performance at safety this season is all the more impressive when one considers that Stamps played cornerback during his two years in JUCO. Thanks to his natural aptitude for vocal leadership, however, the transition has been all but seamless in Stamps' first season at the FBS level.

"(Playing) safety at this level, you make a lot of checks," Stamps said. "You most likely are like the quarterback on the defensive side."

Eliot confirmed his player's sentiment, while praising Stamps' ability as a vocal leader.

"It's critical because your safeties, for the secondary, they're the quarterbacks, and you have to be great communicators," Eliot said. "But, you also have to know what you're doing, think fast, and get it communicated. He's done a tremendous job."

Last year's three-interception total was tied for the worst in the country in 2013. That seems a far cry from Stamps' Wildcats, whose nine total interceptions this season are good for fourth best in America. It became apparent during Kentucky's first game of 2014, when Stamps made a spectacular one-handed pick against UT Martin, that last year was a long time ago.

"A.J. is playing very well. He's one of our best players on our defense and has unbelievable instincts," Eliot said. "He's got a lot of talent, one--and he's got a lot of natural instincts."

With less than 48 hours before a noon game against ULM on Saturday, Kentucky held its usual light Thursday practice.

Head coach Mark Stoops called it a "good mental day" for the Wildcats.

"Guys had good energy, seemed to be locked in, so it was good to start to put our finishing touches on ULM, looking forward to a good game," Stoops said. "A lot of it's mental between here and Saturday; just trying to get everybody locked in."

Stoops hasn't seen any signs of his team relenting in its focus with a break from Southeastern Conference play following a big win over South Carolina on Saturday. Nonetheless, he and his staff continue to harp of the importance of approaching this week and this game the right way.

"We have an opportunity to prove ourselves each and every week, no matter who we're playing," Stoops said. "I'm sure a lot of people around campus have been telling them good job and slapping them on the back all week and all that stuff, and there's just so much more we need to improve on. If you're not ready to play, you will be embarrassed."

For a young team off to its best start in six years and coming off its first back-to-back SEC wins in five years, handling success is more new territory in a season full of it.

"Now all of a sudden, yeah, we won two games in a row, and we need to go play well again," Stoops said. "And it's a game that we're favored, and so how are we gonna respond? Are we gonna handle our business and go out and play the same way we've been the last couple weeks and take care of our business?"

UK in search of complete game against ULM

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Patrick Towles will lead UK into a matchup with ULM at noon ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Patrick Towles will lead UK into a matchup with ULM at noon ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Winning back-to-back Southeastern Conference games is no small feat.

In fact, Kentucky hadn't done it in five years before taking down Vanderbilt and South Carolina in consecutive weeks.

A torrent of excitement on the part of fans has followed the victories and UK's 4-1 start, but Mark Stoops has gotten back to work since his signature win on Saturday. He can't stop thinking about the way the Wildcats have won those two games.

"Two weeks ago played great defense, maybe not as well offensively," Stoops said. "This past week played extremely good offense, and defense not as good as we have."

UK, of course, held Vanderbilt to just 139 yards and not a single offensive score in a 17-7 win over the Commodores, but stalled on offense in the second half. Against South Carolina, the Cats couldn't stop the run and allowed 500 yards, but scored 45 points to upend the Gamecocks and send an electric Commonwealth Stadium crowd into raucous celebration.

Clearly, Kentucky is capable of playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. Hosting ULM on Saturday at noon ET, the Cats will look to marry solid offensive and defensive performances.

"We just need to continue to worry about ourselves and continue to improve," Stoops said. "I think that's the good thing. There is an awful lot on this film from this past week that we can improve on, that we will improve on."

That starts on defense, specifically in the ground game.

South Carolina had 282 rushing yards on Saturday, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in the process. As a result, the Gamecocks punted just three times, though UK did have three interceptions to pave the way for the win.

"We didn't play very well in the run game," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Probably our worst performance in the run game. It was very disappointing. It was mainly linebacker play. I think linebacker play was poor in the run game. So, we need to make improvements this week in that area."

Defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree has received that message loud and clear. The senior leader also has a good idea what it will take to make those improvements.

"The key to playing the run better on our defense is basically just doing our job, don't try to be selfish," Dupree said. "We had another case of trying to be selfish last game and it showed in the long run and they gashed us a lot of times. So this week we're just focused on doing our job to make sure everyone stays in their gaps."

The play Dupree made to give UK the win against South Carolina is proof of exactly that.

As Gamecock quarterback Dylan Thompson dropped to pass in the final minutes on Saturday, Dupree and defensive tackle Mike Douglas played their assignments to perfection. When Thompson threw, Douglas got his right hand on the ball. Dupree was in position to grab it in midair and scoot into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

"Just do your job and things will happen for you," Dupree said. "In the long run, just make sure everyone stays in their gaps and does their assignments and it'll pay off big time for us."

The Warhawks (3-2, 2-1 Sun Belt) will provide a test on that front.

"ULM's a balanced offense that can attack you in a lot of ways," Eliot said. "They can line up in spread looks and throw the ball around. But they also can get in some two-back sets and run power and run counter. So it's a team that we've got a lot to prepare for."

UK's offense will have a unique challenge to prepare for as well.

ULM uses a 3-3 stack on defense, a system current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez is best known for. In their base formation, the Warhawks play with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

"Those guys are really well-coached," Brown said. "Todd Berry has done a really good job there. Not only there but some other places he's been also. Got a lot of respect for their defensive coordinator (Troy Reffett). He's tough. It's a little bit unorthodox. They're really sound in what they do, but you just don't see it a lot."

ULM is unpredictable in the way it pressures the quarterback, and the Warhawks are tied for eighth nationally in sacks per game (3.8) as a result. On the flip side, UK will have its chances to capitalize when the Warhawks don't get to Patrick Towles.

"They get a lot of tackles for loss," Towles said. "They get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, but there's a lot of opportunities for big plays. So when they come we gotta hit them and hopefully we do that."

As fascinating as the Xs and Os will be when the Cats and Warhawks face off, the outcome will depend more heavily on which team is ready to play. ULM has already faced LSU on the road and taken down Wake Forest in its season opener, marking the third straight season in which the Warhawks have beaten a major-conference opponent. In 2012, ULM opened its season with an overtime win at No. 8 Arkansas before dropping games against Auburn and Baylor by a combined eight points.

"They are not intimidated coming into an environment like this," Stoops said. "They are so used to playing big teams.  In the past four or five years they have played SEC teams well, beaten SEC teams, come within one possession of beating great SEC teams."

Combine ULM's big-game experience with the fact that UK is coming off a huge win and you have a matchup that might seem ripe for an upset. The Cats have other plans.

"Don't expect a letdown," Brown said. "I don't believe in it. You've got 365 days for 12 opportunities. You better not waste one. I fully expect us not to waste one. We'll be ready to go."

Besides, UK wouldn't dare waste a chance at playing that elusive complete game.

"That's what makes you optimistic about the future because we haven't put it all together yet," Stoops said.

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