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Keith Taylor: Past failures haunt Stoops, UK in season-opening loss to Southern Mississippi

A season of promise started with disappointment, leaving Kentucky coach Mark Stoops scrambling for answers following a 44-35 setback to Southern Mississippi Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

In rebuilding mode since he arrived on campus four years ago, Stoops thought the Wildcats had moved on from past disappointments, including two victories over Louisiana-Lafayette and Eastern Kentucky last season that could have easily been tossed in the loss column.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops walks off the field following a 44-35 loss to Southern Miss Saturday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops walks off the field following a 44-35 loss to Southern Miss Saturday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Instead, the Wildcats showed glimpses of greatness, overshadowed by a second-half meltdown that saw the Eagles rally from a 35-10 deficit by scoring 34 unanswered points that reminded Stoops of recent past failures. In his previous game at Commonwealth Stadium last November, the Wildcats blew a 24-7 halftime lead in a 38-24 setback to instate rival Louisville.

Facing his former offensive coordinator, Stoops watched the Wildcats produce similar results — building a lead only to see it crumble down the stretch. Stoops said the setback came down to an inability to finish, an issue that has plagued the Wildcats since his tenure began.

“(The loss is) very difficult because the same thing happened the last time we were in this stadium a year ago,” he said. “I thought we were way beyond that and we weren’t.”

Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker agreed.

“We put in a lot of work this off-season and worked hard for these things not to happen,” said Barker who completed 15-of-21 passes for 323 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception. “For some reason it did. We’ve just got to go back, watch film and learn from it. There are plays we will shake our head at, but we will just have to learn from it.”

As Stoops knows, his honeymoon has ended and he is doing everything he can to keep the administration, fan base and players from throwing in the towel so early in the season. Although it’s just the first of 12 games, the sense of urgency has already begun.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game, but that’s a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do,” he said. “I didn’t think I would ever do that. That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better. And I’ll tell you this, we’ll play better.”

Kentucky racked up 443 total yards in Eddie Gran’s debut as offensive coordinator, but most of that yardage was attained in the opening half. Kentucky managed just 56 yards in the final two quarters, while the defense gave up 95 offensive plays and 554 yards, including 295 in the second half against a Southern Miss offense guided by former UK offensive boss Shannon Dawson.

“At the end of the day, (the loss) is on me,” Gran said. “In the second half, we didn’t score any points, we turned it over three times out of five possessions (and it’s) unacceptable.”

Because of the letdown, the noise outside the confines of Commonwealth Stadium is certain to get louder this week as the Wildcats prepare for their Southeastern Conference opener at Florida Saturday in Gainesville. Barker isn’t concerned with the chatter but intends to focus on the future.

“We just have to keep working, put this one behind us, learn from it,” Barker said. “Everybody (in the locker room and on this team) has my back, my family, my friends, I don’t worry about anyone else’s opinion.”

In moving forward, Stoops hopes the loss is a short-term memory than a setback that lingers for the remainder of the season. He cited the team’s first-half performance in the opener as an indicator of his team’s potential.

“I know everybody has every right to question what we’re doing and we’ll stay the course,” he said. “You saw how we can play and how we will play (in the first half). 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.”

As Stoops knows, it all comes down to closing games, something the Wildcats failed to do yet again in the opener against the Eagles.

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

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