UK has an open date before a season finale at Louisville next Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree is one of the healthy ones.
Unlike many of his teammates, Dupree doesn't have an injury that's forced him to miss any time. He made it through eight games in eight weeks without a sprained ankle, strained muscle or any other malady Mark Stoops has had to publicly address.
He still felt like he got "hit by a truck" by the time the stretch was over.
"Your body feels horrible after a while," Dupree said. "You wake up in the morning, sometimes you don't want to get out of bed because you feel like you want to sleep it off."
With an open date this weekend, Dupree, at long last, got that chance. Following a loss at Tennessee on Saturday, the Wildcats were given days off on both Sunday and Monday to rest and recover.
"It felt good just to lay down, finally, for a long time and just don't worry about anything for that day," Dupree said.
Not only had Dupree and the Cats played on eight straight Saturdays, they had also faced seven Southeastern Conference opponents over that same time period. To say a break was needed would probably be an understatement.
"You get back in there, like I said, Saturday afternoon or Saturday night when you're done, and Sunday certainly, and it's on," Mark Stoops said. "It's on to the next opponent, and it's a full grind. That gets taxing on everybody. The players, they have to come in here Monday and we have to address the issues from the previous game and then on to the next opponent immediately."
Instead, the Cats get to take a breath before they dive headlong into preparing a matchup with Louisville in both teams' regular-season finale next Saturday. Don't think, however, that they forgot about football altogether. Even though there were no official team activities on Monday, groups of players gathered independently to meet and review film with no coaches present.
"It was some of the leaders on the team wanting to step up and make some changes," senior wide receiver Javess Blue said.
Neal Brown, meanwhile, had a film session of his own.
"We do a lot of evaluation," Brown said. "Like over the last couple of days I've watched every play that we've had. Kind of broke it down to every play by different formations and personnel groupings then kind of identifying some problems that have been consistent and going about fixing some things."
Some break, huh?
"With a bye week, of course there's just a little more time to sit (as a coaching staff) and take it in and look at things and see what we have done good and what we've done poorly and try to put them in a position to be successful," Stoops said. "It's our job to put them in a place that they can succeed."
When UK returned to the practice field on Tuesday, that effort continued.
The first step was to focus on some of the little things that began to escape the Cats toward the end of their stretch of eight straight games and a five-game losing streak. With lots of work on blocking and shedding blocks, pass coverage and getting open and one-on-ones with first-teamers, Dupree feels like it's fall camp all over again.
"We are doing all fundamentals this week," Dupree said. "It seems like we started over."
The results, according to Stoops, have been nothing but positive.
"Guys seem to have a little more energy, a little more pop in their step," Stoops said. "Got a chance to go back and do some things, just camp drills as far as competing and doing some things good against good and fundamentally getting better. So it's been a great time for a bye week for us, and I think, like I said, it's been helpful so far, both with rest, healing up some guys and fundamentally getting better."
Stoops said after the loss at Tennessee that "we didn't have a lot in our tank," but the bye week has given the chance for the Cats to refuel. He said he expects UK to be close to 100 percent for the Louisville game, though offensive tackle Kyle Meadows remains a question mark.
More importantly, Stoops sees a team that continues to be coachable and willing to work. The frustration, of course, is there, which is only natural when you've been stuck a win shy of bowl eligibility for two months.
But the Cats are eager for their final chance to break through.
"We know our shortcomings," Stoops said. "We know we all need to do better. But I see a team that's fun to coach, that care, that want to win, that are putting a lot into it."
Five former Cats emerged victorious in NFL Week 11, including one UK alumnus who signed to an active NFL roster just last week. Alfonso Smith, a former Kentucky running back who went undrafted in 2010, re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers after falling casualty to the team's final roster cuts in training camp. Smith spent his first four seasons as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Cats in the Spotlight Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (7-3) While Cobb failed to reach the end zone for only the second time all season (snapping his six-game TD streak), the fourth-year wide receiver still managed to haul in a season-high 10 catches for 129 yards. The red-hot Packers rolled over the Philadelphia Eagles, 53-20. Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (7-3) Like Cobb, Tamme was able to record a season-high number of receptions without scoring a touchdown. The Danville, Ky. native caught four passes for 31 yards in a 22-7 upset loss to the St. Louis Rams. Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-8) Once again, Williamson shined while the Titans were defeated. The rookie linebacker combined for eight tackles (two solo, six assisted) and logged two sacks on Monday Night Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers bested Tennessee by a score of 27-24.
UK lost to Tennessee on Saturday at Neyland Stadium, 50-16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even though Kentucky hadn't played the kind of game he demands, Mark Stoops stepped to the podium and offered an objective assessment of his team.
At a moment when the competitor inside him surely wanted to be angry, Stoops was calm.
"It's not easy," Stoops said. "Nobody likes to lose. Our fans don't ... and nobody likes to lose. It's not fun."
UK (5-6, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) fell at Tennessee (5-5, 2-4 SEC) on Saturday, 50-16. The outcome, no question, was disappointing, especially after the Wildcats jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a field goal on their first drive. The Volunteers were dominant, rolling up 511 yards to UK's 262.
"Give Tennessee credit," Stoops said. "They beat us. They outcoached us, outplayed us. They were very prepared, very energetic. They had two weeks to prepare and did a heck of a job."
The Cats, on the other hand, played their eighth game in as many weeks. Seven of the games have been against SEC opponents, taking a toll on a young team still building depth.
"I'm proud of this team, and that's hard to say. ... They did some good things," Stoops said. "We're 5-6 and we're in the middle of a tough stretch right now. I don't think -- and I would never say this before the game, and I'm never gonna give an out for any of us -- we didn't have a lot in our tank.
In spite of that, UK turned in a solid week of preparation for a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. Unfortunately, it didn't translate on game day,
"I have no problem with our team's attitude and their effort," Stoops said. "And some people may have a hard time understanding that when you get beat (50-16). But I really do. I think our guys really want to play well. I thought they really prepared well, really tried to come in with a good mindset, and really I thought gave good effort."
Best demonstrating that effort on offense was wide receiver Javess Blue, who became the 23rd player in school history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards. The senior had six catches for 131 yards, including grabs of 39 and 30 yards to set up UK's lone touchdown.
"My mindset was trying to get this team a (win), but at the same time we all ... played a part in this game," Blue said.
Blue added a 23-yard catch on the final drive of the first half, making a heads-up play when he kneeled with two seconds on the clock to allow UK to call a timeout and attempt a long field goal. Austin MacGinnis would capitalize, setting a school record with a 54-yard kick and making him one of three kickers nationally with three field goals of 50 yards or longer.
"When I went out there, I didn't even know how long it was or that it was for the school record," MacGinnis said. "I knew Coach Stoops called field goal to end the first half and I am just blessed that it went in."
The kick gave UK a measure of momentum heading into the halftime locker room, momentum Tennessee would quickly reclaim by scoring on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
Even so, Josh Forrest and Bud Dupree continued to battle. Forrest, a junior linebacker, had 20 tackles, while Dupree had a career-high 15, including a sack and two tackles for loss.
"It shows that we don't quit," Forrest said. "That's the whole thing: We try not to quit and keep making plays when we had to, winning our one-on-ones."
But on this night, the Cats didn't win nearly enough of them, serving as a reminder of the work ahead for a program that has already exceeded its win total from the previous two seasons combined in 2014.
"We need to be more physical," Stoops said. "We need to recruit and develop. ... It's hard. Things don't happen overnight. We need to continue to pound the weight room, we need to continue to recruit and get our players better and bigger. One thing I'm noticing in this stretch and I think y'all can see it too: We need to be more physical. We need bigger."
Even more immediately, UK needs to be healthier.
The Cats have an open date and two weeks to rest before their season finale, a trip to Louisville. That figures to benefit Patrick Towles -- who briefly departed with an ankle injury in the first half before returning -- and numerous other players nursing bumps and bruises.
"Our guys are banged up," Stoops said. "They need a couple days to decompress here a little bit and get a little energy back in their step. Physically and mentally just recharge a little bit."
Once they recharge, the Cats will shift their focus entirely to a matchup with their archrivals. By now, they would have liked to have picked up that sixth win and locked up bowl eligibility, but that wasn't in the cards. Now they have one last shot to do it against the Cardinals.
"It will be a great atmosphere that game," Dupree said. "It would be a great time to take back over the state. With a win, who wouldn't want to beat Louisville to go to a bowl game? We just gotta make it happen."
UK had its normal walkthrough on Thursday, opting to move inside with cold weather in Lexington before the Wildcats go back outside on Friday. Head coach Mark Stoops spoke to the media afterward for the final time before a Saturday matchup with Tennessee, praising his team for the way it has practiced all week. Stoops also gave an injury update on a pair of players, saying Za'Darius Smith (ankle) is expected to play in spite of practicing little this week. Stoops also expects Blake McClain (shoulder) to play after the nickelback practiced all week, but with no contact.
UK travels to Neyland Stadium for a matchup with Tennessee at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The question is inevitable, and Mark Stoops didn't dodge it.
With his team in the midst of a four-game losing streak, Stoops was asked this week about the mental makeup of the Wildcats' mental makeup.
Collectively, do they have what it takes to shake off the losses against a tough opponent? Can they go on the road and punch their tickets to a bowl game?
"It's a fair question," Stoops said. "I don't know. We'll see. We address them today and get with them, we'll see how we respond this week. It will be a challenge, but, heck, just like I said, if you look at it that way, we're 5 5 and with two great opportunities left, again, starting with this one."
This one, of course, is a game Saturday at 4 p.m. ET against rival Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference). According to Stoops, it will be a matchup of similar teams in front of 100,000-plus at Neyland Stadium.
"I think we've shown that as well, very energetic, fun to watch team, team flying around, and then we've been inconsistent," Stoops said. "I think if you ask them they would probably say the same thing, I don't know. But, I see a team that's very, very good, and, again, any compliment to a coach, I see a team that plays hard, a well coached team that plays hard."
UK (5-5, 2-5 SEC) has received similar praise from opposing head coaches this season, but the fact remains that consistency has escaped the Cats, as Stoops said. One week, as was the case at Missouri, it's the defense and special teams carrying the load with the offense lagging behind. The next, like against Georgia, the offense takes a step forward and other two units a couple in the other direction.
"It's a mystery," Stoops said. "It's frustrating because we're inconsistent. To beat good football teams, you have to play good -- or at least as good as you can -- in all phases. We haven't done that lately, and that's what gets frustrating. I'm tired of going back and forth where the offense plays well and then the defense and vice versa and all that. We need to be a complete football team, and we haven't done that."
So, with two games remaining, do the Cats have it in them to turn in the kind of complete performance it will take to topple a good team on the road? Offensive coordinator Neal Brown thinks he knows the answer, but, like Stoops, he cannot say for certain.
"I like the kids we have," Brown said. "I think we got good kids. I think we got quality individuals in our room. But I think that's a quality question until we do it. If we bounce back, then yeah, we know the answer to it. If we go out and have a lackluster performance, then the question's still up in the air. So I want to say yes. I want to believe in my heart yes. But until we do it, I think it's still a question."
Though the answer to that question won't be clear until game day, the Cats have shown positive signs in practice this week.
"The one thing I've seen about our team this whole year, even though we had bad games, Monday, the next Monday practice doesn't really show it," senior Bud Dupree said. "We bounce back real quick and move on to the next (opponent) and we just gotta make sure we go out and play four quarters Saturday."
The Volunteers won't make it easy.
Tennessee had a bye week following its best win of the season on Nov. 1, a 45-42 overtime victory in which the Vols overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. Leading the way was quarterback Josh Dobbs, who was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after passing for 301 yards and rushing for 166 in his first start and second appearance of the season.
"He's just playing very well," Stoops said. "Number one, he gives you a great athlete. The run game, the (quarterback) run game is obvious, but he's also throwing the ball exceptionally well. When he led the comeback versus South Carolina, threw some incredible balls in there at the right time and put it in some tight windows and executed very well."
Dobbs is joined in the backfield by freshman running back Jalen Hurd, a 6-foot-3, 227-pounder who rushed for 125 yards against South Carolina. On the outside, UT has five receivers with over 200 yards this season, four of them standing 6-3 or taller.
"There are teams that can run the ball and they have size outside and can throw it, there is no way around it," Stoops said. "We've got to win some one on ones, we can't put two guys on all of them, they'll run it up and down the field until they hit their head on the goalpost so you've got to do what you got to do. You've got to win some one on ones."
Winning individual battles has been a focus in all phases for UK. On offense, the Cats showed progress on that front by running the ball effectively against Georgia and putting up 31 points, including a 24-point second quarter.
"In the second quarter against Georgia we played as good as we have all year," Brown said. "I thought we did some really good things. We've got to figure out a way to get started faster. We kind of had ... a lull there at the first of the game and a lull in the third quarter."
UK can afford no such lulls against Tennessee, a team led by A.J. Johnson. The senior middle linebacker has 96 tackles, tops in the conference whom Stoops called a "war daddy" and Brown said may be the best defensive player in the SEC.
"You look at Tennessee, I think the No. 1 thing that jumps out to me is they're playing really, really hard," Brown said. "I think that's a credit to their coaching staff. They are. They're playing hard, and they play aggressive."
The Cats, considering the opponent, the environment and the stakes, expect to do just the same.
"These are the games that we like," Patrick Towles said. "It doesn't take much for us to get excited about this game."
Temperatures dipped into the 30s for the first time this season for a Kentucky practice on Wednesday, but the Wildcats remained focused on the task at hand.
UK's work in preparing for a trip to rival Tennessee continues.
"We had a good Wednesday practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around and staying warm, for the most part, so that's a good thing, and were into it. We're harping on fundamentals, and for the most part we were able to do that today."
The Cats, particularly on defense, are opting to focus on fundamentals rather than wallow after a loss to Georgia last weekend.
"Everybody was disappointed and frustrated from the loss," Eliot said. "But you got no other options in this league. You got to get on to next week, so that was our approach."
As difficult as that seems, that's been no issue for UK. Bud Dupree remains confident the Cats won't let one loss pave the way for another.
"The one thing I've seen about our team this whole year, even though we had bad games, Monday, the next Monday practice doesn't really show it," Dupree said. "We bounce back real quick and move on to the next (opponent) and we just gotta make sure we go out and play four quarters Saturday."
More than anything, playing four quarters means winning the individual battles that have too often gone against UK in recent weeks. Eliot says that's mostly to blame for Kentucky's struggles both defending the run and in forcing turnovers of late.
UK figures to stand a better chance of winning one-on-ones if standouts Za'Darius Smith (ankle) and Blake McClain (shoulder) are available on Saturday. In a bit of good news, both the defensive end and nickelback practiced on Wednesday.
For close to two months now, Kentucky has been on the grind, playing seven games in as many weeks without a bye.
But if you're concerned about the Wildcats starting to drag, particularly in the midst of a four-game losing streak, don't be.
Not this week. Not with a trip to Neyland Stadium to face rival Tennessee looming on Saturday.
"These are the games that we like," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It doesn't take much for us to get excited about this game so we're excited. We were sharp today. We threw it and caught it well today so we're ready to go."
UK's offense is looking to carry forward a small measure of momentum built in an otherwise disappointing loss to Georgia on Saturday. The Cats started slowly, but offensive coordinator Neal Brown said his group played as well as it has all season in a 24-point second quarter. And in the fourth quarter, UK put together a long scoring drive, though the outcome was decided.
"It's a sign that we are growing," Brown said. "Obviously we're inconsistent, not playing as consistent as we would like, but there were some real positives out of that game."
Perhaps the most notable positive was UK's running game, which rolled up 214 yards against a stout Bulldog defense.
"Sometimes you look at the score and you get lost in what it was, but there were some positives for us," Brown said. "I thought we played improved from where we were at at Missouri. Obviously not pleased with the result at all, but we did make a step last week."
Among the next steps for the UK offense is a faster start.
"At the start of the year we got off to some really good starts and scored points, got up on people early, and then in the last few weeks we have not started well at the beginning of the game," Brown said. "So we've got to figure out -- we'll change some things, how we go about calling the game early and I think that will help."
In their first two games, the Cats scored 28 combined points in the first quarter. Since then, UK has managed just 20 total over the course of eight games, going scoreless even in solid showings against South Carolina and Florida.
"We've just gotta get started a little quicker," Towles said. "I don't know what the deal is with that, but we gotta find it and fix it. And I think we took a step today."
After a lackluster 0-5 collective performance in Week 9, Kentucky's NFL Cats bounced back in a big way with an 8-3 overall record in Week 10. Even in losses, two defensive alumni were able to match season highs in tackles.
Unfortunately, Larry Warford--a 2013 third round pick with the Detroit Lions--suffered a knee injury that could possibly sideline the right guard for several weeks. Regarded as one of the league's top offensive linemen after a stellar rookie season, Warford had not missed a career snap until the injury.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (6-3) Randall Cobb continues to demonstrate that the only time he can't find the end zone is when the Packers aren't playing. In a 55-14 thrashing of the Chicago Bears on national TV, Cobb made four catches for 72 yards and a one-handed TD grab you have to see to believe.
Cobb's 10-touchdown total is tied for third most in the NFL and has found the end zone in six straight games and eight of nine of the season.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Though Avery Williamson's Titans are far from fielding a competitive football team, the rookie linebacker shined in a 21-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Williamson tied his career high of 10 total tackles, including six of the solo variety.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Alongside his teammate Williamson, Woodyard headed a two-way defensive spark for Tennessee. The former first-team All-SEC selection recorded three solo tackles and six assisted ones, tying his season high of nine.