Stung by Defeat, Cats Intent on Giving Fans More

Mark Stoops has experienced his share of defeats. Losses are part of the deal when you sign up to coach high-level college football.

Still, Stoops has never felt after a loss the way he did on Saturday night in the wake a season-opening defeat at the hands of Southern Miss.

“I don't know if I've ever in my career, ever want to apologize for a game, but that's a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do,” Stoops said. “And I didn't think I would ever do that. That's a tough loss and our fans deserved better.”

Those fans got plenty of good over the first 28-plus minutes as the Wildcats (0-1) built a commanding 35-10 lead.

Drew Barker was dicing the Golden Eagles (1-0) to the tune of four touchdowns and nearly 300 yards through the air. Receivers were catching everything thrown their way and breaking big plays left and right. The defense was swarming, pressuring star Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens into three interceptions.

“You saw how we can play and how we will play,” Stoops said. “We made plays on all sides of the ball in that first half and the guys knew what they were doing. We were executing, played with urgency, made plays, and did some very good things.”

How quickly things can change.

A 71-yard touchdown in the waning seconds before halftime paved the way for a disastrous third quarter during which the Cats were outscored 21-0. Southern Miss made all the big plays and UK squandered the few opportunities it had to make plays of its own, the defense stuck on the field for play after play. Three Wildcat turnovers and two fourth-quarter Southern Miss field goals sealed UK’s fate, 44-35.

What happened on Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium was exactly what the Cats were training to avoid with their winter, spring, summer and fall mantra of “Finish.”

“We put in a lot of work this offseason,” Barker said. “We worked really hard for these things not to happen. For some reason it did. We just gotta go back, watch the film, learn from it.”

The pain was plain to see and hear in the faces and voices of every player and coach who answered questions after the defeat, and it was as much about feeling they had let down the fans who have supported them through thick and thin.

“It feels terrible because that’s a game we had in our hands,” linebacker Courtney Love said. “We let it slip away. We just gotta go back to the drawing board, get ready for Florida and turn this thing around and show our fans what we have.”

The pain can’t linger though. For UK to turn it around for next week as Love wants, the pain has to be transformed into something productive.

“We’re going to give everything that we’ve got,” assistant coach of the offense and co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “We’re going to come back and the next game’s Florida. We can’t worry about Southern Miss anymore. I’ve been doing this too long.

“I think we’ve got a good team. I think we’ll have to have faith. We’re going to have to rally together and hopefully we’ll be able to show them something at Florida to be able to get (the fans) out there in the stands.”

The Cats know they had a perfect opportunity to rekindle fan excitement with the kind of performance they had in the first half. They also know that, by not capitalizing on it, discontent has been sparked in equal measure.

Stoops can only think of one way to respond.

“I know the criticism that comes with it, I can handle that,” Stoops said. “And we'll get ourselves -- this is the first time I've ever felt like through all the ups and the downs that we will. We'll get in a barricade and get to work in our complex and go to work.”