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Keith Taylor: Stoops hopeful UK can avoid second-half meltdown and reach postseason

The last six games of the season haven’t been kind to Mark Stoops during the past two years. The Kentucky coach hopes the string of bad luck comes to an end starting Saturday.

Of the team’s 14 losses during the past two years, 11 of those occurred during the second half of the season, costing the Wildcats a shot at bowl eligibility each of the two seasons.

 Kentucky receiver Jeff Badet keeps his balance during a win over Vandy earlier this season. The Wildcats host Mississippi State Saturday (Keith Taylor Photo)

Kentucky receiver Jeff Badet keeps his balance during a win over Vandy earlier this season. The Wildcats host Mississippi State Saturday (Keith Taylor Photo)

In a two-way tie with Tennessee for second place in the current Southeastern Conference Eastern division standings, Kentucky controls its own destiny during the final six weeks of the season. Although it’s enticing to look ahead, Stoops said the Wildcats have to take a weekly approach to reach the six-win plateau.

“I think that our kids understand that if we handle our business that there is an opportunity for us week to week,” Stoops said. “It is so hard to look at that big picture. Six weeks is so far from here in the football world. We are worried about today. And I know that gets boring sometimes to talk about, but that is what we are focused on.”

After opening the current campaign with two straight losses, the Wildcats (3-3, 2-1) have won three of their last four games going into a league encounter against Mississippi State. Even though his team hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, Stoops said last week’s open date was beneficial.

“I felt like it really came at a good time,” Stoops said. “Our players seem fresh and recharged and ready to go.”

The Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2) have struggled since Dak Prescott left for the NFL and are 1-3 in their past four games. Like Kentucky, Mississippi State is facing a must-win scenario in order to keep its six-year postseason bowl streak alive.

Although the first half was a disappointment, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is hopeful the Bulldogs can finish strong and keep the postseason streak intact.

“When you face a little bit of adversity, it tests your character, but it can really pull a team closer together,” said Mullen, who is a perfect 7-0 against Kentucky. “Stuff like that can actually help pull the team closer together at times.”

With Prescott at the controls, the Bulldogs rolled to a 42-16 victory over the Wildcats last season. Even without Prescott, Stoops said stopping the Bulldogs and versatile signal caller Nick Fitzgerald will be equally challenging.

“They are still difficult to defend,” Stoops said. “They have always been multiple and coach Mullen has always been difficult to defend.”

As for his team, Stoops has been pleased with backup quarterback Stephen Johnson’s steady play in the absence of starting signal caller Drew Barker. Johnson is 2-1 as the Wildcats’ starter and Stoops said the bye week gave him an extra week to improve and gain more confidence.

“I’m very comfortable with him,” Stoops said. “He’s going to get better and better as we go along. Look at the things he’s done to help us win. He’s made some very critical plays. Maybe it doesn’t always look pretty as far as throwing the ball but when he’s doing the things – decision-making and with his legs – to help us win football games that’s what it’s all about.”

Mullen said Johnson gives Kentucky an additional threat on offense.

“He adds a dynamic edge, throws the ball very well and adds a dynamic running game at quarterback, which you have to account for — not just within the running game, but extending plays and keeping plays alive.he said. “It’s going to be a great challenge, a challenge for our guys.”

Despite the recent lack of success against the Bulldogs, Stoops is confident the Wildcats can turn the proverbial corner this weekend.

“I feel like our players and our coaches we know that everything has to be earned and you have to continue to work at it but we are up for that challenge and excited for this week,” he said.

Defense takes a hit

Stoops said Thursday that backup linebackers De’Niro Laster (knee) and Kobie Walker (shoulder) will miss the rest of the season. In the absence of both players, Kengera Daniel and Jordan Bonner are expected to take over the roles vacated by Laster and Walker.

Game tracker: Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

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