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Keith Taylor: Make no mistake, Kentucky players elated to reach halfway mark at 5-1

Kentucky’s players aren’t paying much attention to some of the negativity going into open week. They’re happy to be within one game of bowl eligibility with six games left.

The Wildcats have won five games in their first six encounters and in third place in the current Southeastern Conference standings. The five wins were by a combined margin of 38 points, including a 40-34 triumph over Missouri Saturday night.

The biggest gripe is the fact Kentucky hasn’t been able to put an opponent away when given the opportunity. The Wildcats struggled to get past lesser-ranked foes in Eastern Michigan and Missouri during the past two weeks.

The victories haven’t been in blowout fashion or even a thing of beauty, but to the players, it’s all about winning and nothing else.

The Wildcats have won five games in their first six encounters and in third place in the current Southeastern Conference standings (UK Athletics Photo)

“We’re all really happy and excited and just happy with where we’re at,” said Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, who improved to 10-5 as the team’s starting signal caller. “We can do a whole lot better, but we’re happy with it.”

Garrett Johnson, part of a senior class that has given Kentucky football a boost, was the first acknowledge the Wildcats’ imperfections in the locker room minutes following the six-point victory over Missouri.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s just how it is. You’ve got to get to the nitty gritty, get to it and just try to get the job done.”

The senior receiver added the team’s maturity and mentality also has played a role in the starting the season at 5-1 this season. In the past 17 games, the Wildcats are 12-5, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in a 16-game span since the Kentucky compiled a 12-3-1 mark from 1977-78. The Wildcats have win eight of their last 10 home games for the first time in more than a decade and six of the past 10 conference encounters.

Johnson said the team’s biggest trait has been overcoming adversity during the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats didn’t panic when the Tigers roared back from a double-digit deficit in the team’s last encounter and stayed poised when they failed to put away a gritty Eastern Michigan team nearly two weeks ago.

“That’s just been our mentality, don’t flinch,” he said. “We know where we can go as an offense (and) we know the things that we have planned. It’s just executing our plays.”

Learning to put teams away will be a point of emphasis for the Wildcats during an open date this week and defensive back Derrick Baity believes the Wildcats will eventually develop a killer mentality.

“That’s just something we have to grow with,” Baity said. “We have to have that killer mentality I think we get too relaxed when we get a comfortable lead and then we make our job harder. It’s starting to get frustrating. During the second half of the season as a leader, that’s something that I’m definitely going to emphasize and I know the coaching staff is going to back it up.”

The offensive issues have led to an increase in taking chances, especially on special teams. The Wildcats used a blocked field goal late to secure a win over Eastern Michigan and a fake punt on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter led to a game-clinching field goal against Missouri. Although such plays come down to luck, it all comes down to timing and execution.

“Luckily the gut was right (at the time),” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who gave special teams coordinator Dean Hood the credit for making a push to pull off the feat. “It worked, so that was big. It was a big play in the game.”

A year ago, the Wildcats were among the worse teams in turnover-margin, but have since made a significant turnaround and are at plus eight, ranking Kentucky among the Top 10 in that category in the league and nationally.

“That’s the main reason we are 5-1,” Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw said.

If not for Kentucky’s late meltdown in a 28-27 loss to Florida last month, the Wildcats would be undefeated going into the break. The Wildcats will gladly take the next best thing and Stoops added his team is designed to overcome adversity.

“We haven’t been perfect, we lost one, but you’ve seen us fight back from adversity and that’s the way this team’s built right now,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, hard fought-games. And that’s the way most of this league is.”

That’s what Stoops and his staff expect during the final six games, with five of those against conference foes and the Kentucky coach is looking forward to the calm before the storm.

“We’re not a fragile football team, they can handle adversity,” the Kentucky coach said. “And we’re going to work on our mistakes, but we’ll keep on finding ways to win. There’s not many football teams that go through the season that don’t win, somehow, some close games. We don’t need to do every week like we’re doing. I would like to have a one that you could breathe a little bit, but it shows a lot of character.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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