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."
Continuing the tradition of an event unique to Kentucky basketball, it was a night of fireworks, dancing, dunks and even a pop-star impersonation by Matthew Mitchell. But more than anything else, Big Blue Madness was a celebration of a new season, and the capacity crowd in Rupp Arena enjoyed every second.
Let's relive the top five moments from Big Blue Madness 2014. 5. "The story isn't over"
After UK Hoops had its introductions and on-court action and the 20-time national champion Kentucky cheerleading team turned in an impressive routine, it was the men's team's turn. Before any of the Wildcats made an in-person appearance, the team's new intro was shown on the two massive video boards installed on the baseline stage.
Aaron Harrison's prediction of "It's going to be a great story" from after a loss at South Carolina last season came over the speakers. The words came to define UK's magical run through the NCAA Tournament during which the Cats proved all their doubters wrong.
Harrison then came into view and walked toward the camera. Turning a phrase, the clutch sophomore shooting guard said exactly what UK fans wanted to hear: "Our story isn't over."
4. Drake introduces Coach Cal
After the Harrison twins were the final players to have their names called, there was one more introduction to be done before John Calipari appeared. Drawing possibly the loudest cheer in a night full of them, rapper Drake came on stage.
Lint roller in hand, Drake addressed his fellow UK fans and introduced Coach Cal.
"This is family to me," Drake said. "This is a real thing to me, you know, and tonight I want to introduce a man who is definitely one of the most important people in my life. Despite his busy schedule, he always takes the time to check in with me through the highs and the lows. He's the godfather for us that bleed blue."
Drake would then suit up in a practice uniform and go through the layup line with the team.
3. The basketball
Although Big Blue Madness has become more of a spectacle than anything else, it technically remains the first open practice opportunity for UK's two basketball teams. And so, there was actually some basketball played.
UK Hoops was without three players and needed a substitute male player to play a five-on-five scrimmage, but the Cats look poised to be among the nation's best yet again. Jennifer O'Neill was dynamic as a scorer, while McDonald's All-American Alyssa Rice seemed more than capable of playing immediately in the post.
On the men's side, the Cats were as competitive as you'd expect in both three-on-three and five-on-five scrimmages. Andrew Harrison played much like the point guard that led UK to the national championship game, while Tyler Ulis did nothing to hurt his fan-favorite status. There were thunderous dunks aplenty from the likes of Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, while Dominique Hawkins showed renewed confidence in his outside shot.
The final three minutes of the five-on-five scrimmage were particularly heated, as players on both sides turned up the intensity. White would close out a 42-36 win before Coach Cal closed the night.
"This is going to be a process," Calipari said. "We're trying things that have never been tried before, but this is a talented group of great young men representing you."
2. Mitchell one-ups himself ... again
Mitchell had exhausted nearly all his dancing options in recent years, culminating in routines in which he channeled MC Hammer, Britney Spears and James Brown. The only thing left for him to do, apparently, was sing.
Doing his own unique take on a few Bruno Mars hits, Mitchell serenaded the crowd in a way only he can. He likely won't be quitting his day job anytime soon, but the performance was impressive. See for yourself.
1. Cal drops the mic
Abandoning the state of the program address he delivered last year, Coach Cal cued the tape from his speech at Big Blue Madness 2009, his first as head coach. When the clip was over, Calipari was fittingly brief.
"Enough talking, let's ball," Calipari said, dropping the microphone and closing the book on the offseason.
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.