John Clay: Kentucky progress coming in small, painful steps

herald-leader sports columnistSeptember 14, 2013 

Louisville beat Kentucky 27-13 on Saturday, but there's a reason they refer to it as growing pains.

With growth, comes pain.

Or no pain, no gain.

Let's let Mark Stoops explain.

"We made some steps," the Kentucky football coach said Saturday after his first taste of this in-state rivalry turned out pretty much as the experts expected.

"Like I told the team," Stoops continued, "we're never going to accept losing and all that. I could give that whole same speech and everything like that ..."

But, you know — Stoops didn't say this; I'm saying this — it could have been worse.

The seventh-ranked Cardinals were two-touchdown favorites. They won by two touchdowns. They came to Lexington having won the last two Governor's Cups and extended the streak to three.

Teddy Bridgewater, U of L's Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, has had better days, but the junior was good when he had to be good. And by the second half, when a young Kentucky defense began feeling the effects of a 60-minute game, the Cards turned smashmouth to seal the deal.

Louisville stat of the day: For the 18th straight meeting in this UK-U of L series, the team that rushed for the most yards scored the most points. Kentucky gained 162 yards on the ground. Louisville gained 242.

Kentucky stat of the day: The Cats failed to convert a single third-down opportunity. And they had 13 tries.

Ouch.

But let's get back to the home team, Stoops' young team. On the one hand, the new coach didn't pull off the monumental upset that would have attracted the attention of a nation and sent his program's progress into warp speed. On the other hand, by game's end, the doors of his underdog Cats were still attached.

"I thought we had our chances," said true freshman wide receiver Ryan Timmons. "I thought we had plenty of chances."

Proof: With three minutes left in the second quarter, the game was a 3-3 tie.

There was growth on defense, which kept the Cards from ringing up video-game like numbers. There was pain on offense, which dropped a ton of passes and kept putting itself in third-and-longs.

"I thought we'd do better," said Neal Brown, UK's offensive coordinator.

For Kentucky, "better" was the word of the day, probably the season. By my count, Stoops used it 18 times in his post-game news conference.

"I think we're better," he said at one point. "Same thing I told (the team), if we continue to do that, just go to work, just get better."

Last year, the Cats were bad. This year, with a new staff and some new players, they're trying to get better. That takes time. Problem is, if the schedule knows it takes time, the schedule doesn't much care that it takes time.

Saturday marked the start of a brutal stretch. After an open date this Saturday, Kentucky welcomes 18th-ranked Florida to Lexington. Next comes a trip to 13th-ranked South Carolina. Then top-ranked Alabama rolls into Lexington.

There was a play Saturday that perfectly represents what UK is up against. Louisville had driven from its own 48 to the home team's 13-yard line where Bridgewater and Co. faced a third-and-10.

U of L offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called a fade route pass to wide receiver DeVante Parker. Bridgewater threw a high floater into double coverage. In other words, Kentucky had the play covered with two men on one. The ball was in the air and it was anybody's ball.

Parker went up and got the ball. Louisville reception. Louisville touchdown. Louisville lead — one it never relinquished.

The growth? UK had the right defense called and the players in the right place. The pain? Louisville scored anyway.

There is likely to be a lot of that in the coming weeks.

Don't focus on the pain. Focus on the growth.

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

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