Past Improvement Tells Stoops UK Will Make Future Gains

Mark Stoops and his staff spent Sunday reviewing the tape of Kentucky’s defeat at the hands of Tennessee, a game that saw the Wildcats lose in spite of rushing for 443 yards.

As expected, they found positives on offense and special teams, along with a smattering of costly mistakes. On defense, it didn’t take long to figure out the issue.

“Defensively, it was all about the explosive plays,” Stoops said on Monday.

Tennessee scored touchdowns on 24- and 51-yard pass plays and runs of 17 yards, 45 yards and 29 yards. Twenty-three of the Volunteers 59 plays went for 10 yards or more.

“That was a combination of things, whether it be, there were some new wrinkles, there were some details that we need to fundamentally play better, there were some missed tackles,” Stoops said. “So, it’s all the above. All of us, whether it’s the scheme or structure of the defense, whether it’s missed tackles, or whether it’s the details of the defense, we need to execute better.”

Per usual, that begins with practice on Monday. There is much work ahead to prepare for a Senior Day matchup Saturday at 4:30 p.m. with Austin Peay (0-10, 0-7 OVC), but their track record this season suggests the Wildcats (5-5, 4-4 SEC) will get it done.

“We’ll get those things fixed, get back to work today and really push and grind on the details in all areas of the program,” Stoops said. “And that’s why we’ve improved a great deal, that’s why we’ve gotten better through this season.”

UK’s improvement is indeed unmistakable.

The season began with back-to-back troubling losses, but the Cats have rallied to within a win of bowl eligibility. And even in losing two straight to SEC East rivals Georgia and Tennessee, they have never folded.

“We may not be perfect,” Stoops said. “We all know that. There’s a lot of things in every game that we could do better. But they’re always striding to get better and to work and to have that fight.”

Perhaps most notably, that fight has helped created an offensive identity for Kentucky. The Cats, no matter the opponent, are going to move the ball on the ground. Since those two losses to open the season, UK has averaged 274.4 yards rushing per game to bring its season average to 238.5 yards, 17th nationally and third in the SEC.

That was the primary driving force in UK reaching the .500 mark in SEC play for the first time since 2006.

“We told the team right after the game -- never will we accept losing,” Stoops said. “But I’m not going to let people take away from the good things we’ve done.”

That good was on display even in defeat, as UK showed it physically stacks up much better with high-level SEC opponents than in previous years.

“I know it was very tough as we were building to this point, to go on the field where we were physically, it was not a good look,” Stoops said. “That’s difficult to go coach in that position. I know we’ve closed that gap big time. We’re going to continue to work on it.”

UK, however, is done facing SEC opponents for this season. The formula won’t change for the final two regular-season games and, potentially, a bowl game.

“Moving on to Austin Peay, we’re just, again, excited to get back to work today and get back to work and get that attention to detail that we need to keep on pushing our program forward,” Stoops said. “I expect us to have a great practice today and a great week of preparation.”