Cats Motivated to Continue Improvement against Vandy

Kentucky had its opportunities to break through to bowl eligibility and win its sixth game last season. Close losses against Auburn and Florida and a 21-0 lead against Louisville come to mind.

No game sticks in Mark Stoops’ craw quite like that loss at Vanderbilt though.

“I never single (any game) out, but does last year’s Vanderbilt game hurt? Absolutely,” Stoops said. “It bothers me and will probably bother me the rest of my life.”

There’s no need to rehash the details. The broad strokes are that UK outgained and generally outplayed the Commodores, only to fall victim to their own mistakes in a 21-17 defeat. The offense managed just 17 points on six red-zone trips, while the defense couldn’t get off the field to allow the Cats a shot at the game-winning drive.

“Like anything, you’ve got to finish games and what sticks out in my mind from that game is they were able to put together a three-minute or four-minute drive at the end of the game and run the clock out and that can’t happen,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “We should’ve been able to stop them and give the offense back the ball one more time.”

With Vandy (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) set to visit Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday at 4 p.m. for the rematch, everything about last year’s loss is fresh on the Wildcats’ minds.

“It has a lot of motivation,” Denzil Ware said. “Go in there with a chip on our shoulder and we’re going to go in there and compete for four quarters and we’re going to give them boys everything we got because that game last year really hurt me a lot. Really hurt the team a lot and we really want this win.”

Stoops, however, is quick to remind that this year is a new one. Some of the faces on the Vandy sideline might be the same, but it’s their talent more than their familiarity that the Cats (2-3, 1-2 SEC) will worry about.

“They’ve got some very big guys in the front of their defense,” Stoops said. “What sticks out to you, too, when you think about Vandy on defense is how mature they are. I believe they have five fifth-year seniors starting and five fourth-year juniors starting and two juniors so that’s a pretty veteran group. The two big boys inside are big guys with some experience.”

Foremost among them is Adam Butler, the disruptive defensive tackle who was dominant as Vanderbilt held Florida to 236 total yards in a 13-6 defeat. Butler had five tackles and two sacks in the game. Needless to say, Butler and the Commodores have UK’s undivided attention.

“They play hard,” Eddie Gran said. “They play physical. They’re very, very — they’re coached very well and they will fight you tooth and nail every play. It’s a team that all my years at Ole Miss and everywhere that I’ve been and Auburn and Tennessee, we battled with them every year. Look at them this last week, they went 13-6 against Florida and had their opportunities. So I respect the heck out of them.”

Also getting UK’s respect is junior running back Ralph Webb. Coming off a season in which he rushed for over 1,000 yards, Webb is the SEC’s leading rusher and the Commodores’ workhorse. He’s run for 582 yards in five games, carrying at least 18 times in each and 24 or more three times.

“He’s a great player,” Ware said. “He’s a great guy. I respect him. I respect his game and I just respect the person that he is and I’m not going to take him lightly when we go out there and play and neither is he going to take us lightly.”

Fortunately for UK, the Cats are much better suited to take on the challenge of facing Webb than they were even as recently as a few weeks ago. Starting at halftime of the New Mexico State game, Stoops describes the difference in his defensive group as “night and day.”

“We’re growing and getting better,” Stoops said. “It comes like that. You’d like to have five fifth-year seniors and five fourth-year guys playing but we have some inexperience that you have to figure out what they can do and execute. That’s all of us. That’s coaching, it’s not on them, but together we’re figuring it out and making some improvement and I think you’ll continue to see that.”

Even as UK fell at Alabama last weekend, Stoops saw growth and potential for more. That starts this weekend.

“There were improvements in certain areas and we need to continue to work in others,” Stoops said. “Looking forward to a big challenge this week and a great opportunity to play Vanderbilt. We’re excited and ready to get back to work.”