A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keith Taylor: As countless possibilities build for Wildcats, Stoops keeping his squad grounded

It’s not how you start but rather how you finish.

If Kentucky’s season was based on the first two games, it would have been termed a total failure and not the ability to respond to adversity. The latter has led to better results for the Wildcats going into the final month of the season.

Mark Stoops gives the thumbs up sign after the Wildcats defeated Missouri Saturday (Chet White/UK Athletics)

Mark Stoops gives the thumbs up sign after the Wildcats defeated Missouri Saturday (Chet White/UK Athletics)

More than two months after the well-documented second-half meltdown against Southern Mississippi in the opener and a no-show performance at Florida, the Wildcats (5-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) have second place all to themselves and can clinch a runner-up finish in the Eastern division with a win over Georgia Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

Even in what is considered a “down” year in the division, raise your hand if the thought of Kentucky possibly playing in the SEC championship game in Atlanta crossed your mind, especially after such a disastrous start. With a little help from South Carolina and LSU — Florida’s next two opponents — coupled with two straight wins by the Wildcats, a chance to compete for a conference championship becomes a reality rather than a dream for Kentucky.

Read More at Keith's Blog

Read More at Keith’s Blog: Out of the Blue

Aside from the team’s string of five straight bowl appearances from 2006-10, football hasn’t been a topic of discussion this deep into the season for the past three decades. Normally, the wait until next year mindset has already kicked in by this time and basketball becomes the conversation starter and it remains that way until March Madness.

What has transpired during the past six games has been amazing to witness, considering the Wildcats lost starting quarterback Drew Barker after the third game of the season. Although not perfect, Stephen Johnson has stepped into Barker’s role and has guided the Wildcats to five victories in the past six games, while Kentucky’s running game has developed into one of the most productive units in the conference.

The backfield, anchored by emerging superstar Benny Snell and veteran Stanley “Boom” Williams, is averaging 299 yards per game against league foes and 219.5 yards per contest. Stoops has replaced the Air Raid with a Ground Game that has produced wins and a turnaround that didn’t seem impossible nearly two months ago. The “Wildcat” formation also has made a difference in the team’s offensive schemes and presented problems for opposing defenses.

“Every football team morphs or evolves into what they are,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Monday. “I think we’ve done a nice job of finding what we can do well and what our players can handle on both sides (of the ball). Controlling the ball and running the ball and getting tough yards and running the football when everybody knows you’re going to run the football will help you win some football games and it has through this run.”

To reach this point, Kentucky defeated the teams it needed to beat in the conference (South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri) during a crucial three-game stretch to even have a shot at reaching the postseason for the first time in five years. A late season collapse by preseason favorite Tennessee and Georgia’s inconsistent performances under first-year coach Kirby Smart has created even more opportunities for the Wildcats.

Despite the possibilities that exist for his squad, Stoops isn’t looking beyond Georgia and doesn’t want his players to develop the same mindset.

“There will be no talk about that,” Stoops said. “ We need to control what we can control and that’s playing Georgia well. Let’s play Georgia the best we can. We’re in no position to look ahead against anybody.”

Honors: Snell was named SEC Freshman of the Week for the third time this season, while defensive lineman Adrian Middleton was named Defensive Player of the Week by the league office Monday.

Gametracker: Georgia at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

Related Posts

Leave a Comment