NASHVILLE — Mark Stoops isn't a coach with lots of fancy catch phrases.
But the one idea the new Kentucky coach always goes back to is the concept of "the process," of trying to find small ways to improve each day, hoping it eventually will equal wins.
After a 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday night at LP Field, Stoops acknowledged that the process is going to be long, but he told his team to stick with it.
"We'll get back to work," the first-year head coach said. "Win or lose, I told the team 'back to work tomorrow.' We've got to get some things fixed and plan on doing that."
What things specifically?
"We need to coach better, we need to play better and we need to look at everything we're doing, especially defensively to get them in a position to make some plays," Stoops said.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said the team — win or lose — can't look at just the results it gets on Saturdays.
It has a lot of work to do every day.
"We have 12 one-week seasons, so it's onto the next week," Eliot said. "We're onto week two and we're going to try to get better and win that one."
Several of the more veteran players said the team needs more internal leadership, that it can't just come from the coaches.
Maxwell Smith, who came in as the backup quarterback, said he plans to be one of those leaders on offense.
"I just need to step up and be a leader for this team," Smith said. "Whether I start or not, I need to step up and be a leader.
"I think I need to be that guy. I may not start next game, but I need to be that guy regardless."
"That guy" on defense, senior linebacker Avery Williamson, said the team can't fold because of one loss. There are still at least 11 more games to improve.
"This hurts a lot," he said. "I've got to tell these guys I'm not going to give up. ... They're going to have to keep fighting."
Stoops was asked how he'll keep one loss to open the season from becoming something bigger that drags down the whole season.
"We're all disappointed. We all need to do a better job," Stoops said. "But if we would've won this game, we would go back to work tomorrow the same way. Win or lose, you got to go back, regroup and put a good game plan together, put the work in and just get better. We need to improve. There's a lot of room for improvement, and I anticipate us doing that."
'We beat ourselves'
After bringing in Southeastern Conference officials for much of the final weeks of practice, Stoops said he believed the team would be prepared to play a clean game.
The Cats instead were penalized 10 times for 69 yards, including several costly false-start penalties.
When Stoops was asked if he thought they were a result of first-game jitters, he said he didn't know.
"That was discouraging," he said. "We haven't seen much of that. Came at some critical times. We were backed up there, and to get two in a row was very disappointing."
Running back Raymond Sanders agreed. He said it was frustrating to take one step forward and then two steps back.
"We beat ourselves really on a lot of things," Sanders said. "We couldn't get in a rhythm. We were doing a lot of things that were drive-killers. We've got to make sure we're more disciplined. ... We'll get that fixed and we'll have a pretty good offense."
To go for it or not
Midway through the fourth quarter, Stoops had a decision to make, down 35-17 on fourth-and-4 on the Western Kentucky 13-yard line, should the head coach go for the touchdown or kick the field goal?
"I thought about it," he said. "Thought quickly about going for it. But we needed points. Actually, if we don't miss the extra point (later), we have a shot with that plan.
"I figured if you don't get it there, the game's over. Had to get it to three. That was the plan. We go down and score. We kick the extra point, we got a shot."
Did it bother the new head coach to hear the crowd boo his decision? Maybe a little.
"You've got to stay the course," he said. "I plan on being a head coach for a long time, and you got to do what you believe is right. I understand that goes with the territory completely. Shoot, half of me wanted to go for it, too."
One place where Kentucky showed some promise was in its ground game. Behind senior Raymond Sanders' 98 yards on 14 carries, the Cats amassed 216 rushing yards, their most against a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2011 when they had 230 against Central Michigan.
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow added 75 yards and freshman receiver Ryan Timmons added 33 yards on one run.
"We ran the ball well," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We did some things, but we've got to get better and play at a faster pace."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.