Mark Stoops found a silver lining in his team’s 21-13 loss at Mississippi State Saturday but took the blame for his poor start against the Bulldogs.
“(I) didn’t feel like we played very good football in any phase,” Stoops said. “I didn’t see signs of that during the week, but obviously I didn’t have them ready to play and come into an environment like this against a tough, physical football team. They beat us. They beat us in all phases, in particular, the start.”
That start — an interception returned for a touchdown on the opening series — put the Wildcats in a hole in which they never recovered but Stoops liked the way Kentucky responded in the second half despite at last three missed touchdown catches and two missed field goal attempts.
“I am happy that we had enough pride in ourselves to regroup and come out and play with the type of attitude and the fight, and the way we played the game the way you’re supposed to play,” Stoops said. “We weren’t perfect. We still made a lot of mistakes. We’ve gotta get back and regroup and I have to do a better job coaching them and we have to play better. Going on the road again next week, so we’ve gotta make it happen quickly.”
Stoops downplayed the possibility of a hangover following a disappointing 29-21 loss to No 9 Florida the previous week. He said the poor preparation was likely the cause of his team’s letdown in Starkville.
“These guys are young men and got a lot in their tank,” Stoops said. “We need to regroup. I think it was a situation where I’ve gotta do a better job of getting them ready to play. Our coaches, you know, have to get them ready. I think you take an inexperienced team at certain positions on the road in a hostile environment and we weren’t up for the challenge. That’s on all of us. But I don’t think it’s as simple as having a hangover. I really don’t. I just think it’s a mentality that you have to have and you have to be a good football team to go on the road and to play in an environment like this and win. We didn’t have that (Saturday).”
Stoops was surprised quarterbacks Sawyer Smith returned to the field after taking a shot to his shoulder at the end of the first half. Smith threw for 232 yards in his second start as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. He attempted 41 throws and completed 15 of those passes.
“I thought he was done,” Stoops said. “(He) came back and gutted it out and really gave us everything he had there in the second half. But he was dinged up with his shoulder.”
Although banged up, Stoops expects Smith to start in Saturday’s game at South Carolina and is confident in Smith's abilities in the pocket.
“We all still have a lot of confidence in him,” Stoops said. “The kid is banged up already. He’s got a wrist, he’s got a shoulder. He’s banged up, but he’s going to lay it on the line. Everybody can really relate to that and respect that. He’s going to make mistakes. This is his second start. He’s going to learn from it. As you hear me talk, you’ve just got to find a way to win. Getting behind and not punching it in when you’re moving the ball and not getting scores in the red zone, missing kicks and things of that nature, it’s not a good recipe right now. We’ve got to play better defensively too. It’s just the team. We’ve got to play better as a team, especially early on.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT
Stoops said he decided to sit out Kash Daniel after seeing the second video of a tackle that showed the senior linebacker allegedly twisting the ankle of Florida quarterback Kyle Trask in a loss to the Gators earlier this month. Daniel, also a team captain, wasn’t at mid-field for the coin toss prior to the game.
“We have great respect for this game,” Stoops said. “We're going to honor the game and do things as good as we possibly can. That was 100 percent my call to not have him a captain and not have him play to start the game. I know you're going to open yourself up to more (criticism) or less or anything else, but believe me, I try to do things right. I'm not perfect. We try to respect the game. Our players are going to respect the game and respect people and compete. It's an emotional game. So, I'd like to just leave it at that."
Gametracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.