On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke to the media for the final time before Kentucky's matchup with Mississippi State.
Once again, the UK coaching staff left the practice field happy with the Wildcats' work.
"Guys have been good all week," Stoops said. "We've had good energy and good practices, so hopefully we'll get a few mistakes cleaned up. Seems like we have, and looking forward to a great game here Saturday."
A great game and, if Stoops is right, a great atmosphere as well.
Asked about the opportunity to play against the nation's top-ranked team at home, Stoops repeated that he's excited to take the field in front of a big crowd at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, I think we're starting to create a great environment at home and we're looking forward to that, so obviously, always a lot nicer playing at home than at some of these venues in the SEC," Stoops said. "It's pretty challenging. So hopefully we'll get some good home-field advantage and it will help us."
Mississippi State's ranking has added to the anticipation for Saturday's game on the part of fans, but the No. 1 next to the Bulldogs' name only means so much to coaches and players.
"A big game's a big game," Stoops said. "You kind of feel it in the air and the energy and the practice and the focus, so they're really all big games. Once you get to the point where we're doing what we're doing and trying to win a bunch of games, then they're all important. We've got a tough stretch and this is our next one."
As much as he may have wanted to, Neal Brown couldn't just throw away the tape from a blowout at LSU on Saturday.
Even though it's a painful reminder, there's too much to be gained from looking back at the loss for a young Kentucky team.
"If we had a veteran team, hey, we may have came in and not even watched the video," Brown said. "Really. And just said, hey, we're better than that, let's go. But I think where we're at, especially on offense, we've got to learn from those mistakes, or you repeat them."
UK began the business of correcting those mistakes on Monday and Tuesday, with a practice on both days. Some tough coaching has resulted, but it's all geared toward preparing the Cats to play their best game on Saturday against Mississippi State.
"When we met yesterday, we were hard on those guys because we've got to be better," Brown said. "In those type of games and those type of atmospheres, we've got to be better. Why did things go wrong? Here's why, now let's go out and fix them."
The issues on offense, according to quarterback Patrick Towles, were across the board. UK, however, is on their way to fixing them.
"We just didn't really make plays," Towles said. "The coaches can call a perfect play, but you need to execute. We didn't execute at any level at any position, which you're going to get beat by everybody if you don't do that. We executed really good today. We'll build on that tomorrow so come Saturday we're ready to rock."
The Cats don't have much choice about whether to be ready if they want to win with the top-ranked Bulldogs coming to town. Both Brown and Towles said Mississippi State's defensive line and linebackers represent a challenge the likes of which UK has not yet seen, even against LSU and Florida.
"I think they've got the best front seven that we've played against, maybe the best in the league," Brown said. "I haven't seen them all yet, but their front seven is very talented, d-tackles, they go four deep there and they're big."
Winning five of six to open 2014, confidence was never a concern for Mark Stoops.
After Kentucky's only blowout loss of the season at LSU on Saturday, Stoops knows he needs to think about his team's psyche for the first time.
"You worry about it and we need to address it, because, you know, you're going to go through ups and downs, you're going to lose some games," Stoops said. "When you self-inflict against a good team--and I'm not taking anything away from LSU because they flat beat us across the board, but when you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence."
The mistakes, in a 41-3 defeat, were plentiful.
They started on special teams, where a series of errors played a role in all 27 of LSU's first-half points. The Tigers scored on four offensive possessions before halftime and they started, on average, at the UK 42.8-yard line due to three long returns, a personal foul and a squib kick recovered by LSU. The other seven points came on a punt returned for a touchdown.
"There's mistakes that can and will be corrected," Stoops said. "We've all made our mistakes this year, offensively, defensively, special teams. Again, they're magnified against a very talented team on the road, and when you open the game that way, it doesn't set the tone. That's not what you want. So they're magnified but they're things that can and will be fixed."
The miscues on special teams served to nullify a defensive effort by UK that Stoops says was better than the box score may suggest. LSU piled up 303 rushing yards, but the Tigers needed 51 carries to do it and did much of their damage once the outcome was well in hand.
After reviewing the film from Saturday, Stoops was able to see that.
"I don't think we were physically dominated on the field and, again, you just look at, hey, they ran the ball for 300 yards, you're not generally going to win a lot of games when teams run for 300 yards," Stoops said. "We know that's not acceptable but there are a lot of good, physical plays in there by our defensive guys."
UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will carry that awareness into an important week of practice leading up to a home matchup against Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). To compete with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Cats can't afford to let their confidence slip in the least.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well," Stoops said. "So now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
Stoops has a measure of control over that confidence, but he also knows predicting how the LSU loss will affect his team is an inexact science. Even so, he has a pretty clear idea how the Cats will react.
"I think because we got whooped and had because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Stoops impressed by MSU, Prescott
Mississippi State might not have been at the top of the polls when the season began, but Stoops isn't altogether surprised to see they are now.
The Bulldogs belong.
"They're a very talented football team," Stoops said. "You could tell they had a lot of confidence coming into the season just by the way they carried themselves at SEC Media, just listening to them with their quarterback and leadership."
Mississippi State boasts three wins over top-10 teams, all coming in the three weeks before a . The Bulldogs are last in the league in total defense, but much of that has to do with the big leads they've built in every game they've played this season. Along those same lines, Mississippi State ranks second in the conference in both interceptions and sacks.
On offense, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in total yards behind leading Heisman contender Dak Prescott.
"They're playing red hot and it starts with their quarterback," Stoops said. "He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams suffered an undisclosed head injury during the loss at LSU on Saturday. He returned to Lexington with the team and is now recovering, though Stoops had no timetable on his return.
"Things look better, not cleared to play yet, obviously," Stoops said. "I'll wait until the doctors tell me he can get on the field but, I think, yeah, things are looking better. When he will be cleared to practice or play I have no idea."
Williams took to Twitter on Sunday, a welcome development after the running back stayed on the ground for a number of minutes after taking a big hit on a kick return in Baton Rouge, La.
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."