As debuts go, Mark Stoops' first game as Kentucky head football coach was not vintage. The former Florida State defensive coordinator spent a Saturday night in Nashville watching Bobby Petrino's offense slice and dice the UK 'D.'
With the final seconds ticking off the LP Field clock in Western Kentucky's 35-26 victory, Hilltoppers fans fired up a chant.
"Joker was better! Joker was better!"
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Still, if his first game was a bummer, Stoops' initial weekly news conference that followed a loss revealed a new coach successfully performing a tricky task. Stoops was bluntly honest Monday at Commonwealth Stadium about where the Kentucky football program — 10-25 in its last 35 contests — now stands. Yet the coach hired to replace the fired Joker Phillips offered some hard truths without being harsh toward individual players.
"I'm not one to sit here and throw anybody under the bus," Stoops said. "I said it from the very beginning, it's (the coaching staff's) job to put (the players) in a position to be successful. That's still our job."
Stoops explained that he would not negatively critique individual players in public because he thinks it is self-defeating. "When you tell somebody they stink, they're going to stink," he said. "That's not my style. We all need to do better."
Other than Kentucky losing to a Sun Belt Conference team for a second straight year, there were two laments I heard most often from UK football backers in the wake of the loss.
Lament One. After UK had marketed the return of the Air Raid offense to Lexington, Kentucky opted to start run-oriented quarterback Jalen Whitlow and threw the ball fewer times (28) than it ran it (32).
"People were saying 'Are we Air Raid? Are we (a) running-(offense)?'" Stoops said. "Hey, man, we're trying to win. We're trying to do whatever we have to do to win games and put our players in a position to be successful."
In fairness to the UK offensive game plan, remember: Western returned all its starters in a secondary that intercepted four Kentucky passes last season. UK's veteran running backs have been more productive in their college careers so far than its veteran wideouts.
And the fact is, the Cats did average a robust 6.8 yards a rush against WKU on Saturday.
Kentucky's second foe, Miami (Ohio), gave up five touchdown passes last week in losing to Marshall. Stoops announced Monday that Maxwell Smith, who has proven a more proficient passer than Whitlow, will start this week.
"Just because we're naming Max, we're not putting that loss on Jalen whatsoever," Stoops said. "There's a lot of people who could do things better, starting with me. ... We just feel like Max gives us the best opportunity this week."
Lament Two. When a school hires a new coach whose reputation is built on his acumen as a defensive coordinator, as is the case with Stoops, then the defense should be better immediately — even if it is built around players who were part of a bad 'D' the season before.
Western gained 487 yards against Kentucky on Saturday night. In 2012, a UK defense designed by the much-criticized Rick Minter allowed WKU only 323 total yards. Even accounting for the fact that a Petrino-designed offense is tougher to defend than what Western had in '12, that's jarring.
Most disappointing was how easily WKU ran the ball (216 yards) against a defensive line thought to be UK's strength.
"I was very disappointed," Stoops said, "(yet) I can't put it all on any one person or any one group. It was D-linemen trying to do too much (and losing gap responsibility); and it was poor pursuit at the second level by the linebacker position on things we worked extremely hard at; and then it was poor position and poor reaction from the secondary in certain situations."
After a summer of unusual recruiting success and ample hope associated with Kentucky football, it was disappointing that Stoops and the Cats could not back up that momentum by mustering a better effort Saturday against a team from a far less prominent conference.
Still, if the first test of leadership is the ability to make an honest assessment of an operation without losing the people already in the program, Stoops on Monday passed that exam.
"I knew what I was getting into and I know what I'm into," Stoops said. "We're not going to flinch."