Cats Handling Failure, Looking to Build on Success

When it comes to mental toughness, Kentucky has come a long way in Mark Stoops’ four years in Lexington.

He tells the Wildcats often.

“I constantly remind them and tell them that we’re not fragile,” Stoops said. “You’re not fragile. You’re not a fragile group. You’re going to get coached hard. You’re going to do some good things; you’re going to do some bad things. And you’re going to respond.”

As a team, UK did exactly that on Saturday in a dramatic win over Mississippi State. Even though the Cats found themselves trailing and with every reason to pack it in, they mounted a last-minute drive and knocked home a game-winning field goal.

“I think it verifies a lot of things we talk about and the belief system and staying the course and never knowing when your number’s going to be called,” Stoops said.

There were three players whose numbers were most notably called on that final drive. All are prime examples of taking hard coaching and bouncing back from adversity.

There’s Stephen Johnson, the quarterback who led the drive. Johnson has struggled all season with turnovers and had two more lost fumbles against the Bulldogs, including one inside the MSU 10 that was returned for a touchdown and completely shifted the game's momentum.

Rather than wallow in the wake of a mistake, Johnson took the aggressive coaching he got on the sideline and got back to business. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 40 yards on the last drive.

“It says a lot because when he came off the field, obviously, he had a bunch of people in his ear starting with me,” Stoops said. “And that’s just it, too, that we never stop coaching.”

Jeff Badet can attest to that.

The speedy receiver hasn’t seen as many balls come his way in recent weeks with Johnson adjusting at the quarterback position and the emergence of the running game. With that in mind, Stoops summoned Badet for a “heart to heart" on Friday.

“We were talking prior to that, there wasn’t a lot of footballs down the field and they had to block and do other things,” Stoops said. “It’s just staying the course and having that preparation and mindset and energy and focus to when your number is called, you’re going to deliver.”

Deliver Badet did on Saturday. The junior had seven catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, capping his breakout game with an 18-yard catch that set up a 51-yard field-goal.

“He’s been steady,” Stoops said. “He’s been making progress. And we need him to, and that was part of the message Friday. We need him to have a strong mindset, to be a leader, to make plays when his number’s called, whenever that may be. He certainly came up big Saturday.”

So did Austin MacGinnis. Putting a missed short field goal on UK’s opening drive out of his mind, the kicker buried a 51-yarder as time expired to send Commonwealth Stadium into a frenzy.

It was the kind of moment that just hasn’t happened for Kentucky in recent years, one where things go wrong and the Cats find a way to win anyway.

“I feel like that we’re over the hump there,” Stoops said. “That’s for sure. And that takes a long time because when you don’t have the success, and they constantly hear that and hear that and hear that, the minute you hit adversity, the minute you hear coaches riding and pushing them to the brink, if they don’t respond the right way then it’s not gonna work. It’s never gonna work until they respond the right way.”

The Cats showed they can respond to failure on Saturday. Now the question is how they will build on success leading up to a trip to Missouri on Saturday.

“That will be a challenge right now,” Stoops said. “…That’ll be the challenge, getting back to work, and what’re we going to do on Saturday to prepare ourselves starting today?”