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Wildcats can't sustain fast first quarter, fall 48-17 to Green-Beckham and No. 8 Missouri

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow was hit in the second quarter of the Wildcats' XX-X loss to Missouri on Saturday. (Photo by James Pennington)

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow was hit in the second quarter of the Wildcats’ 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday. (Photo by James Pennington)


Kentucky got on the board first Saturday against No. 8 Missouri, kicking a field goal and recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. The Tigers answered by scoring the next 28 points, and that was that. Missouri won 48-17.
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Such matters are becoming commonplace to Kentucky coach Mark Stoops: Show signs of promising performance—signs that confirm the prow of the program is pointing in the right direction—and fall apart under the constant scrutiny of relentless offenses with seemingly non-human athletes and superior defenses that spin through the Wildcats’ offensive line like bowling balls through paper mache pins.


Though Stoops denied it, word circulated in post-game interviews that some piece of locker room furniture—perhaps a chalkboard—perished during Stoops’ fiery halftime speech.


“It is, it’s frustrating. I’ve got to do a better job. That’s it,” Stoops said. “It is what it is. It’s a tough situation. I’m trying to fight and claw and help lead this team as best I can. It is frustrating at times, but we all need to do a better job, and we need to overcome adversity. There’s going to be bad plays, there’s going to be adversity, and we’ve all got to handle it better.”


Kentucky (2-7, 0-5) put together an impressive, balanced first drive to take an early lead. Jalen Whitlow started the drive with a five-yard pass to Javess Blue that drew an extra 15 yards after he was hit out of bounds. Whitlow followed with a 25-yard run—his longest of the day—and an even balance of run and pass plays took Kentucky into a 1st-and-goal situation from the 9-yard line. Two rushes and an incompletion set up Joe Mansour’s 21-yard field goal to give the Wildcats their only lead of the game.


On the subsequent kickoff, Missouri’s Marcus Murphy returned the ball to the Tigers 40-yard line before fumbling, and UK’s Tre’ Dunn recovered it. The Wildcats went three and out.


The Tigers (9-1, 5-1) relied on their size advantage in the passing game, especially taking advantage of the size and skill of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham, the 6-6, 225-pound sophomore, finished with seven receptions for 100 yards and a school-record four touchdowns. His first three touchdowns were essentially of the jump-ball variety, simply out-leaping and out-reaching his defender each time.


“They had some wideouts that we couldn’t match up with quite frankly, and that wasn’t a good match‑up for us,” Stoops said. “Green‑Beckham was the No. 1 player in the country a couple years ago, right? He’s a beast. They’re big, and they have great balance, and they put you in a real bind.”


When Stoops was hired last November, this was part of the agreement. Kentucky was coming off a 2-10 season, and the personnel and schedule were such that the first season under the new coaching staff likely wasn’t going to be a whole lot better, at least in terms of the win-loss record. Building a football program takes time, because recruiting takes time. It’s been evident throughout the year that the players on campus are well-coached, but the players on campus simply aren’t enough to execute what Stoops and his staff have in mind.


“You know how you want it to look, how it should look, and when it doesn’t look like that, it gets frustrating, for sure,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.


For Stoops, Brown and several of their key players Saturday—freshman running back Jojo Kemp, sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow and junior wide receiver Javess Blue, among others—the frustration is only to a certain point because they all expect to be around long enough to redeem what is happening now. That isn’t the case for UK’s seniors, like running back Raymond Sanders.


Sanders had 34 rushing yards and a touchdown Saturday to go along with 70 receiving yards—including a 40-yard reception that ended with a fumble Missouri recovered. He said he thinks it’s necessary to start trying to get into his teammates’ heads and getting them to understand how important, at least to him, these last three games of the season are.


“I’m going to definitely be more vocal before the game and make sure those guys are ready, because we just came out—I feel like we started fast but once we faced adversity, guys just got flat. We can’t get flat when someone scores or something happens. We have to keep the same intensity and be ready to ball.”


All season has been an exercise in managing expectations, both when things are going exceedingly well and when things are going exceedingly poorly. At every turn—a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, near-comebacks at South Carolina and Mississippi State, blowout losses at home to Alabama and Missouri—the coaching staff has reinforced that point. But there’s a difference between cognitively recognizing the process as a process and eliminating the temporary moments of frustration in the interim, Brown said.


“We’re human. Everybody’s in this profession to win, and you want to win right now,” Brown said. “But it’s also—and (Stoops) may have even said this—it’s a process to get there. I said this the other day to somebody: ‘You’re steering a ship, not a car.’ I want better results. I want them here and now. I want to play better on offense at every position. But we’re where we’re at. We’ve got three games, and we’ve got to be better.”

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