On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke with the media for the final time before Kentucky's trip to LSU.
Following a light practice, Stoops sounded like a coach confident his team is prepared to turn in its best effort on Saturday.
"Good practice today, putting the finishing touches on a pretty good week of work so far," Stoops said. "Guys are excited. We'll have a run-through tomorrow, but so far so good. Been a good week. Guys have worked hard. Energy's high. So we expect to go down there and play well."
No matter how ready the Wildcats may be, beating the Tigers won't be easy. LSU is a young group, but Les Miles' team is talented.
"We'll be prepared," Stoops said. "It's still a challenge. It's obviously a very big challenge. They're not only physical, they're skilled and they know what they're doing. They put pressure on you."
The 100,000-plus in Tiger Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday will do the same. UK is two days away from facing its second road test of the season and handled the first at Florida well. Nonetheless, Stoops knows the Cats will need to respond when things go awry in Death Valley.
"(Noise) really didn't affect us much the last time we were at that type of environment," Stoops said. "Let's hope it's the same. I think it's certainly not uncommon to see some problems when you're in a hostile environment, so if we get a few, we've just got to be able to overcome them."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown left the field on Tuesday praising Kentucky's preparation.
Based on what D.J. Eliot said on Wednesday, the Wildcats are piling up good practices ahead of a trip to LSU on Saturday.
"We had a very good practice today," Eliot said. "We had a lot of intensity. Guys were flying around, communicating, playing physical and making plays. That's what we needed to have on a Wednesday."
The good start to LSU week comes on the heels of a game on Saturday in which UK started slow and fell behind 14-3 early in the first quarter. Practicing well is one sign the slow start won't repeat itself at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"We've had a very good practice this week," Eliot said. "Last week, couldn't necessarily tell at the moment, but obviously that was the case to start the game on Saturday. So I think that this week we've had good tempo and good practice, and guys are ready."
In spite of the way UK started against ULM, the Wildcats were improved in run defense after the Gamecocks gashed them a week earlier. UK allowed just 77 yards on 40 carries against the Warhawks.
"We were much better," Eliot said. "We played better against the run. Linebackers played better, which is good. Khalid Henderson had one of his best games. And it was good to see us make those strides."
Considering the way true freshman Leonard Fournette (140 yards and two touchdowns against Florida) has been running in LSU's pro-style attack, the Cats will need to be on their game again this weekend.
"He is a very, very, very good tailback," Eliot said. "He is extremely athletic but yet has size where he can run you over too. And he's become a better player every game. Being a freshman, he doesn't have any college experience and you can see the improvement in him every single game. And he sees the hole very well. He has great vision, change of direction and, like I said, power."
As it turns out, it's pretty good for a football team too.
Under Mark Stoops, the UK program has established an open floor for communication. When there's a mistake, it's corrected. When a player makes a bad decision, he hears about it.
Stoops has a simple explanation for how that's been accomplished.
"Well, there's no place to hide," Stoops said at his weekly press conference on Monday.
Bad habits, with Stoops in charge, are exposed, and it's not just the coaches doing the correcting. Players -- from senior leaders to first-year freshmen -- have become empowered in policing themselves and the result is a culture of accountability that's been a driving force behind UK's 5-1 start entering a trip to LSU this weekend.
"The players gotta understand they can't be naive, and that's what helps with some of the things we're doing, whether it be peer evaluations and different things," Stoops said. "We don't want to create a culture where they can hide anywhere."
As much as Stanley "Boom" Williams may have wanted to climb into a hole and hide last week, that culture wouldn't let him. Along with three teammates, Williams was suspended for the South Carolina game following an on-campus incident. After the suspension was handed down, Williams had to face his teammates in a formal setting and own up to his actions.
"We did some things amongst the team that holds that accountability at a pretty high level where they had to address the team and talk to the team and not just, 'hey, I'm sorry,' or any of that," Stoops said. "They came into a team meeting and sat and addressed it with their teammates"
Williams returned to the field against ULM, setting up a field goal with a 75-yard return of the opening kickoff and rushing for 104 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He was happy about his performance and getting to play again, but Williams remained contrite nearly two weeks after the original incident.
"I learned a lot," Williams said on Saturday. "You just gotta be real careful with your decisions and the things that you do, knowing that you're a valuable player to your team. I just wanted to come out and play hard. I owed it to the team, the fans and the coaches, so I just wanted to come out and show those guys that I do want to be part of the team."
That accountability applies on the field as well.
As an example, Stoops said on Monday that an unnamed player will be suspended for the first half of the LSU game following what he called a "foolish penalty" against ULM. Stoops doesn't want to extinguish the fire that often leads to those kinds of in-game mistakes, but there's balancing to be done.
"We just need to constantly preach being unselfish, and you know, I want aggressiveness," Stoops said. "I want them enjoying it. We're always (toeing) that fine line of, you know, letting the guys be who they are."
Stoops, Peveto to reunite
This offseason, former UK special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto took the same position at LSU. It marked a return to Louisiana for Peveto, who spent the previous eight years in the state at LSU and Northwestern State.
Even though they no longer coach together, Stoops and Peveto have remained close.
"He always sends texts, and we communicate back and forth throughout the year," Stoops said, "Bradley Dale has been a close friend of mine for a long time, and we'll continue to be."
As luck would have it, Stoops and Peveto will reunite in their first year apart when UK travels to Baton Rouge, La., for a game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Stoops says UK has a different set of signals this year, so Peveto being on the other sideline isn't a concern in preparation. However, he doesn't expect to do much communicating with his friend this week.
"I don't think we'll talk much this week," Stoops said. "Maybe he'll send me over some crawfish to the hotel or something."
UK-Mississippi State to air on CBS
For the first time since 2007, UK will host the Southeastern Conference's marquee television game.
On Monday, CBS selected Kentucky-Mississippi State for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on Oct. 25.
"You know, that's great," Stoops said. "Obviously I'm not going to get ahead of myself. But every time you win in this league, you're going to put yourself in position for a bigger game."
The two teams are among the biggest surprises in college football this season, with MSU ascending to No. 1 after a third straight win over a top-10 team on Saturday over Auburn and UK sitting at 5-1. As exciting as the matchup between the two may be, Stoops won't spend much time thinking about it this week.
"So I think it's a compliment to our team what we've done to this point, and I know, you know, every game gets bigger and we have a huge one at LSU this week, and that's what's on our mind," Stoops said.
Stamps, Miller expected to be available at LSU
Safety A.J. Stamps and left tackle Darrian Miller each played sparingly in the second half against ULM, but Stoops said on Monday they were held out for precautionary reasons. Both are expected to play this weekend.
Courtney Raetzman scored the game-winning second-half goal in UK's win over South Carolina on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Rain falling, wind blowing and two tough losses on their mind, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to their home field.
The matchup with a tough South Carolina team was a big one, with precious few opportunities remaining for resume-building wins ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the conditions were far from ideal, the Cats weren't about to be deterred. The result was an important victory.
"It was definitely huge for us," Courtney Raetzman said. "It showed a lot about our character and coming out here to fight. That's what we came to do."
To Michelle Rayner -- filling in for Jon Lipsitz on Friday night as the head coach served a one-game suspension for a red card given in a loss at Texas A&M on Sunday -- it was that fight that made all the difference for UK (8-5-0, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) in a 1-0 win.
"Loved it. Loved it," Rayner said. "And I think that's really kind of what we've been lacking, is not only the fight but winning the first and second balls and the battle in the midfield and primarily up top, to keep the ball for us. And I think we did a much better job of that today."
The fight was on display in a tough first half, as UK managed to make it out in a scoreless tie with South Carolina (9-4-1, 2-3-1 SEC) in spite of playing into the wind and rain. In the second, Raetzman put away the winner in the 66th minute.
"Cara Ledman crossed it, it goes past everyone and I slid to get it before anyone," Raetzman said. "But big credit goes to my team for that because they built that whole play up."
Raetzman deserves some credit too. She executed the game plan to perfection with her finish.
"As you can see by the goal, Cara Ledman got into the final third, slipped a ball through and we were talking about sliding and diving in the final third to get on the end of things and (Raetzman) did the exact same thing to them," Rayner said. "A good couple adjustments and they did it well."
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?"
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.