Amid losing, Kentucky football playing with winning attitude

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 23, 2013 

It's hard to quantify and even more difficult to qualify.

But Kentucky's players, despite losing four games in a row and taking a dismal 1-5 record on the road, haven't given up.

It's not something they're just saying to coaches and media, either.

It's something they mean.

"I don't feel like we've laid down all year," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said this week as the Cats prepared for their game at Mississippi State on Thursday night.

"I feel like we've just given up certain plays and didn't play good at times, but I definitely feel like we've been continuing to fight. If we keep that mentality, we can still get some games in the second half of the season."

Sure, a 48-7 dismantling by top-ranked Alabama stung, but Kentucky kept playing.

"Even in that Alabama loss, it was well out of hand, and they were still trying," UK radio network color commentator Jeff Piecoro said on Tuesday.

They were competitive against then-No. 7 Louisville. After falling down 21-0 at then-No. 13 South Carolina, the Cats' players thought they had a legitimate shot to get the ball back and tie the score in the fourth quarter.

"I got the feeling that if we get this ball again, they're not going to stop us," running back Raymond Sanders said about the game against the Gamecocks. "That's the feeling that we had on the sideline and that's the feeling we've got to have: that confidence from the beginning to the end of the game."

And as much as the players don't like to admit it, the sideline at South Carolina was dramatically different than the sideline during a few games last season.

Like a 38-0 drilling at Florida or a 40-0 pounding by Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium or the 49-7 shellacking at Arkansas.

Or even go back another season and look at the 38-8 dismantling by the Commodores.

Part of it is their head coach, Piecoro continued.

"A lot of coaches when they get down, they play not to get blown out, they kind of go into that prevent mode on offense and defense, where he's not," Piecoro said of new coach Mark Stoops. "He's still attacking and the kids enjoy that and they believe in him.

"And that's big because if you believe in somebody, you don't want to let that coach down. You play harder and you play till the final whistle — whatever the score is — and he has really ingrained that into these guys."

The former UK wide receiver said he knew the Cats' sideline was changing when he heard Stoops make a reference to not letting his players shrink away or "hide under a rock."

"It was the first time I'd heard a coach say this in a long, long time, that when Mark came out and said, 'I'm not going to let these guys hide,'" Piecoro noted.

It's also helped that the heads of UK's offensive and defensive units as well as Stoops come from winning programs. They're bringing in players from winning programs.

The problem is, a lot of those players are still young and developing, Piecoro said.

But they haven't thrown in the towel.

"Usually when you get kids that have come from winning programs and you have coaches who have come from winning programs, they don't have a lot of quit in them," Piecoro said.

Last season, UK was outscored dramatically in first quarters, 101-38, and rarely recovered. This season, UK is playing even with opponents, getting outscored 38-37.

Staying in a game early builds confidence. In fourth quarters this season — helped much by the comeback at South Carolina — the Cats are outscoring foes 50-39.

"We don't want to be that team that gives up, that gives off that persona of giving up or getting run over," Sanders said. "So a lot of guys just keep fighting and you want to fight for the guy next to you who is fighting."

On that South Carolina sideline, tight end Anthony Kendrick said you could feel the difference from a year ago.

"Definitely. Definitely. Definitely," the senior said, saying you'd constantly hear players talking to each other: "We're not out of this. One thing leads to another and another thing leads to another and we're back in this game."

Keeping poised and believing has been a big discussion point all season, playing for each other through adversity, Kendrick said.

"All the coaches notice that when those things happen, when other teams score it's like a balloon being deflated," Kendrick said. "They just pull the energy out of us and we lose energy, we lose confidence. So the main focus has just been keeping that confidence, keeping that focus and fighting through those little bumps."

Those bumps are going to keep coming, but so is Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference), the players said this week.

That's going to be necessary in the sold-out, cowbell-clanging Davis Wade Stadium.

The Bulldogs (3-3, 0-2) are known for getting off to speedy starts, outscoring opponents 142-69 this season in the first half.

"They're going to want to play well and get off to a fast start," Stoops said. "It's no secret any time you're playing a team that's struggled a little bit like we have, that's what they're going to sit there and say: They want to get off to a fast start and put a dagger in us early."

If UK can hold on, keep attacking, it might have a chance against the Bulldogs, who have been outscored 49-17 in fourth quarters this season.

"I just know we gotta go out there and play with a winner's mentality," junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree said. "We can't have a losing mentality. We gotta have a winner's mentality to go out there and win games."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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