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Keith Taylor: Stoops has changed culture, expectation of Kentucky football

For the first time in school history, 12th-ranked Kentucky will have a chance to play in the Southeastern Conference Championship game if the Wildcats can beat No. 7 Georgia on Saturday at Kroger Field in the defacto SEC East championship game.

It doesn’t get much bigger.

The 7-1 and 12th-ranked Wildcats completed a successful five-minute drill in the fourth quarter to erase a 14-3 deficit and escape with a 15-14 triumph over Missouri on Saturday to set up the school’s biggest conference game in more than four decades. The Wildcats defeated then-top-ranked LSU at Kroger Field in 2007, but this one will be different and doesn’t compare. All the marbles will be on the table.

“It’s a really big deal for our fan base and for our team,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “These guys have worked hard and you have to find a way if you’re going to be a championship team. You have to find a way to win games like this. I’m just very proud of our team for doing that.”

Kentucky proved it can win without a potent passing game such as it did in last week’s 14-7 win over Vanderbilt. The Wildcats turned right around and used a solid passing game, especially in the final 1:24, to defeat Missouri Saturday in Columbia.

Even though the offense hasn’t necessarily been perfect or balanced the scales through the first eight games, the defense has been the mainstay for Kentucky. Time and time again, the defense has proven to be the team’s most consistent unit and Saturday was no different.

The Wildcats shut down a Missouri team that was averaging more than 500 yards per game and scored 65 points in an easy win over Memphis the previous week.

That was not an easy task but Stoops wasn’t surprised the Wildcats shut down the Tigers’ offense during the last two quarters, holding them to zero first downs, to give Kentucky a chance to win in the closing minutes.

“They’ve been like that all year,” Stoops said.

Under Stoops, the Wildcats have taken steps to be one of the upper echelon teams in the SEC. During the past three years, Kentucky has recorded 13 league victories, tying a school record for most conference wins during a 36-month period.

During that same span, Kentucky has rallied for eight victories when trailing by 10 points or more and a culture change under the Stoops regime also has played a big role in the team’s successful turnaround.

Following the “Missouri Miracle” Stoops and the Wildcats celebrated and the Kentucky coach even did a little crowd surfing with his team in the locker room.

Those are the kind of moments Stoops yearned for when he was hired more than six years ago. Back then, Stoops knew he faced a daunting rebuilding task, but he’s reaping the fruits of his labor six years into his tenure.

“If you were in that locker room, (it’s) 100 percent changed,” he said. “I can’t speak for before, just since I’ve been here. But that group up there, what we did and the way we did, they’re special.”

Stoops sensed more of a bond forming after beating Missouri and hopes it leads to more success in the final month of the regular season.

“I felt us evolve tonight and just really come together and find a way to get that victory for each other,” he said. “And it was really nice that all three sides had to do it. That makes it really gratifying.”

It was a total team effort and that’s how Kentucky has rolled.

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

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