Cats Look to Parlay Passion into Win vs. Charlotte

Mark Stoops is doing plenty of self-evaluation.

He’s thinking hard about his in-game decisions. He’s taking a close look at the way he communicates with his coaching staff. Play calls on both sides of the ball have been subject to review.

But the overall plan and vision for Kentucky football – the ones Stoops pitched in his initial interview almost exactly three years ago – remain exactly the same in the midst of a five-game losing streak.

“We understand where we’re going, what we’re doing and where we’re headed,” Stoops said. “And I know a lot of the good things we’ve done, too. And I know it’s been a long time since we won, been to a bowl game and all those things. We know what we’re in for, but we’re going to hunker down, get back to work and get better.”

Stoops certainly has a sense of urgency about him as UK (4-6, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) prepares for a return to Commonwealth Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday against Charlotte (2-8, 0-7 Conference USA), but not an ounce of panic. He sees no reason for that after the Wildcats turned in a solid effort at Vanderbilt that was undone by crucial mistakes.

“Our players played their tails off,” Stoops said. “That was good to see. I know this Big Blue Nation loves that, loves it when we play with that passion and energy. They did that. We’re going to do that again this week.”

In other words, don’t worry about the Cats’ state of mind.

"Kids are pretty resilient,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “I’m not going to lie, probably a little more resilient than me. They move on. Of course, losses like that hurt, hurt more than most. They probably move on a little quicker than I do, to be honest with you. So, they’ll be fine."

Fine, but playing with a new starting quarterback.

Redshirt freshman Drew Barker has replaced Patrick Towles after playing in three games this season, including leading a touchdown drive against Vanderbilt.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time and a lot of times it comes to players around him making plays and doing things for the quarterback, but it’s time for Drew to get the start,” Stoops said. “That’s the bottom line. He’s done some good things. He’s earned the right and he’s going to start this week.”

Barker came to Lexington with four stars next to his name and having served as a ringleader for a record-setting 2014 recruiting class. The Burlington, Ky., has been cast as UK’s signal caller of the future since the day he committed, but lost quarterback competitions in fall camp each of the last two years.

Now it’s his turn.

“I didn’t think it would take this long, but I was just patient,” Barker said. “Put my nose to the grindstone, kept working. Obviously when you put in a lot of time and stuff, you get disappointed. But if you keep your head down too long, you’re not going to get any better. That’s basically what they told me: You can look at it two ways. You can either sulk and not progress or you can just take it as a challenge and work on it and just try to keep getting better. I took it in the best way possible and kept getting better every day.”

Serving as Towles’ understudy, Barker grew in familiarity with UK’s offensive scheme and built chemistry with the receivers he’ll be throwing to in his home debut. He’ll look to put that into action Saturday.

“I think that overall he makes good decisions, he makes quick decisions, gets the ball out of his hands,” Dawson said. “So, hopefully – looking for more of just a spark really. We’ve got to inject some confidence back into the group."

UK’s defense got a dose of confidence from its performance last Saturday, allowing barely 300 yards to the Commodores. Vanderbilt scored three touchdowns, but one came on an interception return, one came after UK’s defense took the field on its own four-yard line following a turnover, and one came on a trick play.

“We didn’t win the game, but it was a step in the right direction of helping us,” junior Jason Hatcher said. “If we can have that type of emotion and passion on the field as a collective team, I think we’ll win a lot of games.”

Hatcher played a major role in helping to encourage that passion, making eight tackles against Vandy, two for loss.  

“You could see the impact that he makes and I love the energy he played with,” Stoops said. “He was one of the guys that you could tell the hurt was there in the locker room after the game, and it should be when you invest that much and put that much into it. I saw a side of him that I haven’t seen in a long time, if ever. That was the leadership, the inspiration… [He was] really playing with that passion and energy that you’d like to see everyone play with.”

Passion has been no issue for Kentucky fans this season, whether that’s been in selling out Commonwealth Stadium four times in six home games or in reacting to their team’s ongoing losing streak. Stoops doesn’t want that passion going anywhere.

“I completely understand the frustration of fans,” Stoops said. “I want them passionate, and I want them to care. I want them to show up and support this team. The tickets are bought, and we need them in the stands.”