Getting to a bowl was great, they said.
But Kentucky’s players couldn’t shake that empty feeling they left EverBank Field with on Saturday after the 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the program’s first bowl trip in six years.
“We will take the pain of this loss and the pain they brought us and take it to next season,” Cats cornerback Derrick Baity said.
Much like Kentucky left that season-ending Louisville loss last year with a chip on its shoulder that would drive it for an entire offseason, Jordan Jones expects the same this time around.
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“We have a lot of work to do, and it starts right away when we get back,” said Jones, who along with Denzil Ware, led UK with nine tackles against the Yellow Jackets.
“I remember last year right when we lost that Louisville game, we got right back to it. If we get right back to it when we get back, the only way we can go is up,” said Jones, who ended the season with a team-best 109 tackles.
After so many years without one, getting to a bowl game can’t be the standard anymore, the players said.
“We got to the bowl game together, so now we’re going to win the bowl game together next year,” assured Baity, who had five tackles, including one for loss.
Ending a season with a loss is a good motivator, quarterback Stephen Johnson said.
“This makes us hungrier as a group, as a team,” quarterback Stephen Johnson said. “We can only go up from here. We have so many great standards and high expectations for us now, all we can do is go up from here.”
Next season is looking up for Kentucky, which returns a sizable amount of its production from this year’s 7-6 team, including all but one yard of its passing along with 86.5 percent of its receiving yardage and 59.6 percent of its rushing attack.
The loss of Boom Williams, who announced he was declaring for the NFL Draft, hurts those numbers, but offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is excited about what’s next, especially redshirt freshman A.J. Rose.
“A.J. Rose is a guy as we saw him in the last month, especially in bowl practice, he’s really changed,” Gran said. “Part of his deal was not knowing what was going on in the offense. He really took that upon himself. He was night and day. You can see the power and you can see the elusiveness. You can see a guy that’s got some talent.”
The Cats also return all starters and most backups on the offensive line, with the exception of four-year starting center Jon Toth and backup Ramsey Meyers.
Even more returns on the defensive side of the ball, including nine of UK’s top 11 tacklers this season. The Cats’ top four tacklers all are back in Jones, safety Mike Edwards, middle linebacker Courtney Love and defensive end Denzil Ware.
Half of UK’s 21 quarterback sacks return next season, including that stat leader in defensive end Josh Allen, who finished the year with seven of them. More than 96 percent of UK’s tackles for loss return, too.
The Cats’ secondary will take a hit with six of their 13 interceptions graduating, but it’s a position group that returns key talent like Baity and Chris Westry along with Edwards and Darius West, who missed this season with injury.
“The future is very bright,” Love said. “We have so much potential, guys that are young that will be able to make plays all the time. It showed this year and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t win today.”
About those outbursts
Based on the timing of the discontent — two Kentucky defensive linemen had just gone down with injuries — and the direction of Mark Stoops’ obvious frustration, most watching the game assumed the Cats coach was angry with Georgia Tech’s blocking technique and perhaps its head coach.
That was not the case, Stoops said after the 33-18 UK loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
“I was upset with somebody saying something to me,” Stoops said afterward. “I have great respect for Coach Johnson, but nobody else over there is going to say a word to me.”
When asked to expound on perhaps what was said or what upset him, Stoops was vague.
“I will say this: I care about my players and I’m going to check on them,” Stoops said. “I didn’t accuse anybody of doing anything illegal. I have great respect for Coach Johnson. I will talk to him. We have a great relationship. But, again, nobody else is going to say a word to me.”
When Johnson was asked about the exchange, the Georgia Tech coach seemed confused.
“I have no idea,” Johnson said. “On our sidelines? You’d have to ask him. He didn’t say anything after the game or whatever. I wouldn’t have any idea.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Kentucky’s coach was upset in the first half. He had several on-field meetings with the officiating crew in the final minute leading up to a late Georgia Tech field goal to give the Jackets a 20-3 lead at the break.
“I was getting conflicting reports,” Stoops explained. “The bottom line is, (the receiver) was inbounds. They later told me he was inbounds. I couldn’t understand why they were waiting at that point before they reset it to three. This was one second left. It was like a timeout or something.
“I mean, he was inbounds. I just didn’t understand why they just let them have as much time as they want to set it up. … I just couldn’t understand why they would, with one second, give them as much time as they wanted to line up. I thought if you’re inbounds, you got first down, the clock winds. I just wanted clarification.”
The 7-6 record made it Kentucky’s best season since 2009. … UK’s 5,463 yards of total offense were fourth-most in school history and its 6.2 yards per play was the second highest in school history. … The Cats’ 3,044 rushing yards made this team just the second to surpass 3,000 yards rushing and the first since 1974. And their 5.4 yards per run was a new school record, blasting the old one of 4.9 yards per carry set in 1974.