Cats attacking road losing streak head on
Mark Stoops isn’t one to hide from facts.
He’s perfectly aware Kentucky is winless in 10 games away from Commonwealth Stadium so far in his tenure, and he’s not dodging it. He’s actually doing the exact opposite.
Before the Wildcats’ first practice ahead of a Saturday trip to South Carolina, Stoops reminded his team of the road oh-fer for one simple reason.
“Because you don’t win the game by just a bunch of hoopla, just a bunch of rah-rah on Friday and Saturday,” Stoops said. “You win the game by your preparation and what you do throughout the week. So I wanted to set the tone real quick that it’s going to be a great challenge and that we have to accept that challenge in our preparation and everything we do all week.”
Junior Patrick Towles has started the last five of those losses away from Lexington. The talented quarterback has played well in some and struggled mightily in others, but he learned lessons from all of them, lessons that were proven true when the Cats took down South Carolina for the biggest win of the Stoops era a season ago.
“You gotta play a full game,” Towles said. “They don’t really care about the score after one quarter or two quarters or three quarters. Last year when we were playing these guys, that helped us because we came back from 14 down twice. Hopefully we don’t do that on Saturday, but if we do we gotta answer the bell and I have no doubt that we will.”
UK had a couple near-misses on the road in 2014, namely at Florida and Louisville. Both games came down to the wire, but neither time were the Cats able to pick up the elusive victory.
“I don’t necessarily have to bring up those specific instances or specific games; I think our players know that we’re very close in a lot of situations,” Stoops said. “And I think if you look at our team, there’s going to be many games that are going to be very close, and you have to be able to step up and make plays to win the game at the end of the game. “
UK did just that last weekend, surviving a season-opening scare against UL Lafayette and coming away with a 40-33 victory. Of course Stoops would have preferred the Cats not need a Mikel Horton touchdown with less than a minute left after squandering a 33-10 lead, but the fact that they didn’t did give them some valuable experience.
“We had to make some stops on defense and we had to go down and score on offense,” Stoops said. “You’re always looking to have learning opportunities and, again, we’ve just got to better prepare ourselves for the next time we’re in that situation.”
If recent history is any indication, UK could find itself in that situation come Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Columbia, S.C. In addition to last year’s heart-stopping 45-38 victory over the Gamecocks, the Cats took South Carolina to the brink on the road in 2013 in a 35-28 loss.
Stoops remembers the environment at Williams-Brice Stadium well.
“I was very impressed with that place the last time we were there, two years ago,” Stoops said. “That was my first experience in that stadium and was really blown away by the energy and how loud it was. So, it'll be a challenge, and looking forward to the opportunity we have.”
In addition to a hostile home crowd, UK will contend with a South Carolina defense retooled with longtime NFL assistant Jon Hoke assuming co-defensive coordinator duties.
“I think they are going to be improved,” Stoops said. “Prior to last year, they had always played good defense. The last two, three, four years they have always had solid defense. Last year probably wasn’t up to their standards. I know Jon Hoke and what he will do and have a lot of respect for Jon and his defensive players. I know they are working hard to get better and they played solid in the first game.”
South Carolina topped North Carolina, 17-14, in both teams’ season opener. The Gamecocks allowed 440 yards but forced three turnovers while their offense rolled up 254 rushing yards. After UK allowed 247 yards on the ground to UL Lafayette, it stands to reason that the Gamecocks will test the Cats again.
“It is very important to get settled in and get things cleaned up,” Stoops said. “You certainly can’t give up big runs; that is how they won the game last week. They hit a big long run. We can’t be in a situation where we are playing 80-90 snaps on defense and 60 on offense. That is not the recipe that we need.”
Instead, Stoops knows the Cats must play a solid all-around game to put one in the road win column.
“You have to be a complete football team on the road and a lot of times you have to protect the football,” Stoops said. “It is a mentality. A toughness that you have to have to go on the road and be disciplined to come out of there with a victory.”