Stoops expects Wildcats to ‘man up’ and make good showing in final SEC game of season at Vanderbilt

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By Keith Taylor
KyForward sports writer

The stakes are high for Kentucky going into its Southeastern Conference finale at Vanderbilt Saturday.

The Wildcats (4-5, 2-5 SEC) will attempt to end a four-game losing streak and inch closer toward bowl eligibility with a second straight win over the Commodores Saturday in Nashville. Vandy (3-6, 1-4) has lost two straight games and is coming off a 9-7 setback to No. 11 Florida last week in Gainesville.

 Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest pressures Georgia quarterback Brice Ramsey in a 27-3 loss to the Bulldogs last week in Athens. Kentucky closes the road portion of the schedule Saturday at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. (Photo by UK Athletics)

Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest pressures Georgia quarterback Brice Ramsey in a 27-3 loss to the Bulldogs last week in Athens. Kentucky closes the road portion of the schedule Saturday at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky managed just a field goal and 180 yards of offense in a 27-3 loss at Georgia in its last outing and spent the past week tweaking its attack to regain the traction it had during the first half of the season.

Earlier this week, Wildcats coach Mark Stoops put starting quarterback Patrick Towles on notice and planned to give backup Drew Barker more snaps in practice this week. Stoops didn’t name a starter Thursday but said a plan is in place to accommodate both quarterbacks.

“We know what we’re going to do,” Stoops said. “We’ll let it unfold on Saturday.”

The Wildcats welcome the return of running back Boom Williams, who sat out last week’s game at Georgia because of an elbow injury. Stoops said Williams will wear a brace to protect the elbow against the Commodores.

“He has looked fine,” Stoops said. “He didn’t have anything that has set him back all week. He can carry the ball with a brace and it doesn’t seem to affect him. The key will be playing through some pain. The brace is there to protect things so he can’t injure that elbow again.”

Despite the recent offensive struggles, Stoops, whose team defeated the Commodores 17-7 last year in Lexington, hasn’t lost faith in his team and is confident they can close the season on a winning note. At least two wins in the final three games will guarantee a break-even season and a spot in the postseason for the first time in five years.

“I very clearly understand what we need to do,” he said. “There is no panic button. I am not happy (and) not happy with some things and some of the results, but (I have) absolutely not panicked one second.”

Stoops said the Wildcats have been “energetic and focused” throughout the week, a sign the Wildcats have moved past three straight double-digit losses.

“Things have gone well,” he said. “Hopefully that will carry over and translate to us playing better. We’ve got to man up and play football.”

Like Kentucky, Vanderbilt has struggled during the second half of the season, especially on offense. The Commodores made strides in the loss to the Gators and didn’t commit a turnover, after 10 combined miscues in their previous three games.

Vandy coach Derek Mason thinks the Commodores are starting to make a turnaround with three conference games remaining.

“We’re trying a lot of things differently right now,” Mason said. “We’ve focused on a couple of things. You’ll see them on Saturday. But I think we made a step in the right direction when you talk about taking care of the football. It all starts with taking care of the football.”

Stoops was impressed with the Commodores’ showing at Florida and likes the way Mason’s defensive unit has performed this season. Vandy’s defense ranks fifth in the conference and is giving up just 17.4 points per game. Stoops said the Commodores’ consistency with ball control is a concern.

“They shorten the games,” Stoops said. “They are running the ball, using clock, playing good defense, trying to play field position, creating turnovers and it is a good recipe for them.”

The showdown between the two SEC East rivals could produce a high-scoring affair or a defensive struggle and Stoops isn’t sure what to expect.

“I have no idea what the outcome will be,” Stoops said. “I know we have to play good and play better than we have (in the past three weeks). We need to play much better in all areas.”

Game tracker: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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