Cats Not Letting Loss Linger

Kentucky is practicing this week like the Wildcats want to make their first defeat in more than a month a distant memory.

“I think our team has really responded well after a tough, hard-fought loss this past weekend at home to Georgia,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “Again, we’re onto our preparation and total focus on Tennessee.”

That loss, it seems, has done nothing to quench the fire with which the Cats (5-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) have prepared and played since their 0-2 start to the 2016 season. In fact, it looks only to be serving as added fuel leading up to a Saturday trip to Neyland Stadium for a matchup with rival Tennessee (6-3, 2-3 SEC) at noon on the SEC Network.

“The intensity grows each game, after each practice, every day,” Benny Snell, Jr. said. “Guys are more hyped in the locker room, in the weight room, just little things. I’m feeling a good vibe.”

It’s a good vibe tinged with the edge that can only come from the sting of an opportunity missed, a feeling that Snell knows well. The star freshman running back carried the load out of the Wildcat formation as UK drove deep into Georgia territory trailing by three in the final minutes. His seven straight rushes set the Cats up with a first-and-goal, but he was then twice stuffed before Stephen Johnson II’s pass sailed too high for Dorian Baker on third down.

Snell once again had a big game against the Bulldogs, leaving everything out of the field following a 114-yard, two-touchdown performance. Nonetheless, it was settling for a game-tying field goal that stuck with him.

“Just getting too close to the goal line and not scoring,” Snell said. “That’s the type of thing that makes it hard for me to sleep at night. Next time, anytime I get my chance, I’m getting in.”

Feeling similar pangs of regret are Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet, receivers responsible for the back-to-back turnovers that cost UK a chance at a big third-quarter lead. Badet’s play was the more memorable of the two, as the pass he bobbled on a deep post route likely would have been a touchdown for Kentucky rather than an interception for Georgia had he caught it cleanly.

“Knowing that we got the loss,” Badet said, “it was something that really stuck in my head because I was like, ‘If I made that play, we probably would have won the game.’ ”

It’s a fine line Badet, Snell and the Cats are walking, though. They must turn the disappointment still fresh on their minds into something productive rather than destructive. Considering Badet made four catches on four deep posts in Tuesday’s practice, so far so good on that front.

“That’s just all about maturing, just coming out here, because I’m a next-play guy,” Badet said. “I go out there and just next play. I can’t dwell on the past. So I feel like me coming out here and doing what I have to do is preparing me for this game this week.”

The Cats understand they can do nothing to change what happened last weekend, but there’s plenty they can do to get ready for their next opportunity. And they better, because the Volunteers are going to be difficult to beat in front of their huge, raucous home crowd.

“I see a very good team that is very talented,” Stoops said. “They have been banged up, but they had the bye week and they came back last week and played like they are capable of.”

In spite of those injuries, Tennessee ended a three-game losing streak with a 55-0 blowout of Tennessee Tech last week. Quarterback Josh Dobbs was nearly flawless in throwing for three touchdowns before being removed early with a big lead and the Volunteer defense limited the visitors to just 224 total yards.

Quiet in the lopsided win was Derek Barnett, the disruptive pass-rushing force who has 29 sacks over the last three seasons. The Cats do not expect a repeat performance this week.

“Barnett, blocking him is a real issue,” Stoops said. “He is a guy that has relentless effort and ability to create pressure without blitzing. He is a guy that can get to the quarterback any moment.”

Particularly after Georgia was effective making Johnson uncomfortable in the pocket last week, protection is a priority.

“We place a huge emphasis on it,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some things we’re running in practice to try to slow them down a little bit with their pass rush.”

Combining that pass rush, a dynamic Tennessee offense led by an athletic quarterback and a venue in which UK hasn’t won since 1984 makes for a tough test for a Wildcat team coming off a loss. Stoops, however, likes the group he’ll be taking to Knoxville, Tennessee.

“The last time we faced adversity – the tough adversity from the beginning of the year – our team has grown a tremendous amount and I’m very proud of that,” Stoops said. “This is another tough game and facing adversity and you learn from it and move on. We never stop coaching, 24/7, every day, every game.”