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Stoops is more concerned about defeating UT than ending 34-year drought in Knoxville

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops addresses the media during his weekly press conference Monday. the Wildcats close out the SEC portion of the schedule at Tennessee Saturday. (Kentucky Today/Mark Stoops)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky hasn’t won a football game in Knoxville since 1984, but Mark Stoops won’t be making that a point to his team leading up to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference finale against Tennessee.

“We’re worried about ourselves, improving and getting better,” he said. “Just beating Tennessee is important to us. Whether there is a streak involved or not. Why would that make a difference to our team, really? They don’t know anything about 34 years ago. To be honest, they really don’t care. They want to win for their team this year. I think that’s very important and that’s motivation for us.”

Stoops said the 12th-ranked Wildcats have plenty to play for during the next three weeks and notching 10 wins for the first time since 1977 remains a strong possibility. Regardless of the outcome Saturday, Kentucky has a lock on a runner-up finish in the SEC East. A win over the Vols would give the Wildcats six wins against league foes for just the second time school history. Stoops said getting another conference win “is important.”

“We have to be motivated the same way again this week and each and every week,” Stoops said. “That gets to be the challenge as you get to the grind of the season and get late in the year. Sometimes that monotony sets in and we can let that happen.”

The Wildcats (7-2, 5-2) are coming off a 34-17 loss to Georgia last weekend. It marked the first time Kentucky has given up more than 20 points in a game and was the team’s largest margin of defeat of the season.

“Georgia was better than us and made plays in critical moments,” he said. “Our team came into with the right attitude and worked hard in our preparation, the margin for error against teams like that is very small. You have to play your best football and I don’t think we did that … defensively, it was the worse game we’ve played all year, it was obvious giving up the (number) of rush yards that we did. There are certainly things we can do better.”

Stoops was pleased with the way his team played offensively but is still seeking more from the Wildcats, who rank next-to-last in the league in scoring, averaging 24.7 points per game. Kentucky has struggled during the second half of the season and hasn’t scored more than 20 points since a 24-10 win over South Carolina on Sept. 29.

Stoops said his team’s offensive line’s performance since the bye week has been inconsistent.

“They’ve had some good moments but they were inconsistent this past week and there were some critical mistakes,” he said. “A fraction of protection more here or there (against Georgia) and we had some opportunities (to make) some big plays.”

Stoops added standout running back Benny Snell isn’t worn down from carrying most of the load but said he’s simply banged up. Snell suffered an ankle bruise against the Bulldogs, which Stoops doesn’t expect to be an issue moving forward.

“When you play as many snaps and run the ball as hard as he does, you’re going to get beat up a little bit,” he said. “

The Wildcats defeated the Volunteers 29-26 last year in Lexington, but the Volunteers are in a rebuilding mode under first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. Tennessee (4-5, 1-5) defeated Charlotte 14-3 last weekend but has struggled against conference foes.

Stoops said the Vols are starting to take on Pruitt’s identity, especially on the defensive side. Prior to taking over at Tennessee, Pruitt was previously defensive coordinator at top-ranked Alabama.

“You see his team fighting, playing extremely hard and improving,” Stoops said. “It doesn’t surprise me. They’re getting better and better and playing better defensively the second part of the year. You see his characteristics start to take form.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

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

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