John Clay: In another dark season, Kentucky running out of places to look for bright spots

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 16, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

NASHVILLE — When the door finally opened and Mark Stoops had made his way into the tiny, cramped room tucked below the Vanderbilt Stadium grandstand, the Kentucky football coach took his seat at the table and faced the media with the look of a man with an acute case of heartburn.

"Do I even need to say anything?" he asked.

What's left to say? Ten games this season have brought eight losses. The program's losing streak in SEC games has stretched to 14. Saturday's 22-6 loss to the host Commodores was UK's third straight to the team once positioned below the Cats in the conference pecking order.

"It's same old song and dance," said the first-year head coach. "You know the drill."

We know what he would like to say. He doesn't have the players. He doesn't have the play-makers. He doesn't have depth. He doesn't have size. As a first-year coach, he is only as good as the talent he has inherited.

Stoops can't say that, however. It would be bad form. So he coaches as hard as he can. He schemes. He prepares. He pushes. And the horn blows and the results are largely the same — 10 games into a season without a breakthrough that probably isn't going to come. Not this year.

Saturday, Kentucky played perhaps well enough to win but it didn't win. Its defense played probably its best game the entire season. Its offense struggled mightily, its weaknesses exposed and exploited for all to see.

Then there were those can't-have plays: UK gave up two points on a blocked extra point. It was called four times for offensive holding. It failed to execute a fake field goal. It punted the ball once for all of 13 yards. Those are the type of plays that in a close game will get you beat.

"We have a small margin for error," said Neal Brown, the offensive coordinator.

Or at least that's what it sounded like Brown said. His post-game voice was hoarse, almost gone. He looked like a man who hadn't slept since September.

Brown wasn't alone. Defensive tackle Donte Rumph, he of the career-high 10 tackles, limped out of the locker room. There were so many injuries on the offensive line, Shaq Love, a sophomore tackle who has yet to letter, saw his first action all season.

Nate Willis (sprained knee), a key cornerback, and TraVaughn Paschal (strained abdominal muscle), a starting linebacker, didn't even make the Music City trip.

That's the physical toll. Then there's the emotional. Asked about the four holding calls, Stoops just shook his head.

"Sure did," he said, as if he couldn't bear to say more. "Sure did."

Stoops wasn't thrilled with Vanderbilt's final touchdown, a 13-yard jump pass with 47 seconds left. The UK coach didn't object publicly in the post-game press conference, but then he didn't have to.

On the one hand the add-on was pure James Franklin, the Vandy coach who has resurrected the Commodores and who could use a cup of decaf. On the other hand, teams that complain about opponents running up the score are teams on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

"It's our job to stop them," said Stoops, whose post-game handshake with Franklin lingered, to say the least. "That's the pat answer, right?"

It reminded you a little of Franklin's first year at Vanderbilt when after a loss to Georgia he got into a confrontation with the Bulldogs coaches after the game over what he contended was a lack of respect.

Stoops doesn't like to lose either. Nobody does. Not his coaches. Not his players. And a season that started with the promise of so much new has limped toward the end with so much of the same.

"It's tough," said Avery Williamson, the senior linebacker. "But you have to keep telling yourself you have to keep fighting for this team."

It's been a long, tough, losing fight.

"We're doing the best we can," Stoops said.

Recruits are coming and UK fans hope with them come the wins. Even then, however, this first-year feeling of heartburn, that's something Mark Stoops isn't likely to forget.

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

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