John Clay: Stoops gets taste of Big Blue frustration in debut

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 31, 2013 

NASHVILLE — This was not what Mark Stoops wanted in his first game as Kentucky football coach.

"I thought we would play better than that," Stoops said Saturday night.

Ah, but then it's a long season.

That can cut both ways.

It was Western Kentucky's new head coach, Bobby Petrino, who got the first-game win, the former Louisville and Arkansas head man showing he had not missed a beat after being forced to sit out last season.

Unfortunately, UK picked up right where it left off, too, losing 35-26 to WKU at LP Field.

You could even say Kentucky picked up where it left off historically.

Example: Down 35-20, Maxwell Smith threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Demarco Robinson with 1:37 left. All UK had to do was make the extra point and make it a one-possession game with a chance to recover an on-side kick.

Alas, Joe Mansour's extra point hit the left upright, leaving the score 35-26 and pretty much ending the game.

Truth be told, the game was pretty much decided way before then, thanks to the Western offense.

The Hilltoppers rolled up 487 yards of total offense against a UK defense that hoped to be improved under the tutelage of Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, and his protégé, D.J. Eliot.

"They controlled us at the line of scrimmage," Stoops said. "We looked out of place."

Rome wasn't built in a game, however. Not in this case anyway.

Western did it with a balanced attack of running and passing. It wasn't Antonio Andrews, last year's Western star, but a trio of Hilltoppers backs who ran through the Kentucky defense.

"Simple things, leverage on the football, I thought we were very poor," Stoops said. "Hurt us big time on first and second down."

Then WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty hit precision throws. The fourth-year junior looked like a Petrino quarterback, completing 27-of-34 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown.

Western took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in nine plays for an early 7-0 lead. And a tone-setter.

Hard to swallow?

"Very hard," said Stoops. "I thought it was frustrating the whole game."

Not long after, the Toppers marched 80 yards more to extend the advantage to 14-3. Yet another 75-yard drive made it 21-10 Western in the second quarter.

Thanks to 10 points off turnovers in the first half, Kentucky did rally to cut the Western advantage to 21-17 at intermission.

Starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow had a 19-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard run to set up another touchdown in the first half. But the "Air Raid" offense with its young receivers never clicked.

"We didn't play well as a team," Stoops said.

Kentucky didn't quit, give the new Cats that. They ran the ball effectively. Raymond Sanders gained 99 yards on 14 carries. Whitlow ended up with 81 yards on seven carries.

Maxwell Smith entered the game in the fourth quarter and drove the Cats to a field goal, cutting the Western lead to 35-20 early in the fourth quarter, then 35-26 late.

Then came the missed extra point.

Remember, Kentucky was a 2-10 team last year. It did not win a Southeastern Conference game. It lost to Western Kentucky 32-31 in overtime at Commonwealth Stadium.

That WKU loss last season was part of the reason Joker Phillips is no longer the UK coach and Stoops is the Kentucky coach.

The pre-season was full of good feelings

"We're all disappointed. We all need to do a better job," Stoops said. "Win or lose, you've got to go back, regroup, get a game plan together and improve. We've got to get better."

The rebuilding job is one game down with many more to go.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @johnclayiv. log: johnclay.bloginky.com

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