Ideally, Mark Stoops would have frozen time at the 8:52 mark of the first quarter when the scoreboard at Bryant-Denny Stadium read: Kentucky 3, Alabama 0.
A win at that stadium against the top-ranked Crimson Tide doesn’t come easily, and UK ultimately lost 34-6, but there are plenty of positives for Stoops to freeze on film for his team this week.
Unlike a recent road trip to Florida that ended in Stoops likely wanting to shred the tape, he saw many signs of improvement for UK going into their matchup with Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
“It’s all about wins and losses, but you look at yourself, and you look at what we did on all sides and the good things that we did, and you have to build on that,” Stoops said Monday.
A postgame comment from Alabama star Jonathan Allen illustrated to Stoops the progress that Kentucky has made in a few short weeks.
“That’s probably one of the most physical games I’ve played since I was in college,” Allen told Rivals.com. “I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit.”
The unrelenting, physical play that the defensive end was talking about is what Stoops is starting to see from the Cats (2-3, 1-2).
“I heard that from a couple of their guys, actually, that they said it was the most physical game that they have played,” Stoops said in response to the Allen comment. “And that is a compliment, to me, because you know this game is about being physical. … I thought our approach was right, played the game the right way. Go out and line up and do what we can do and play the best we can.
“Certainly there’s areas where we can do better and will do better, but the fact that they said that was one of the more physical games, it is a testament to what we are trying to do as we try to move forward.”
Stoops saw the physical play on both sides of the ball, including getting tough yards on offense against the Crimson Tide, one of the best defenses in the nation.
“We made good yards and blocked some very good people for some efficient yards,” Stoops continued. “It’s not like we were pushing them around or anything like that, but we had efficient yards.”
The offense has shown plenty of flashes this season, but the defense struggled mightily early on, allowing more yards and points than almost any other defense nationally.
In his postgame comments, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said UK kept quarterback Jalen Hurts off balance and that he “struggled a little bit.”
There were plenty of signs of progress, especially in the first half, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said after the loss Saturday.
“We’re getting better at executing every week and I thought they got a little bit better,” he said. “We still had some mistakes that hurt us, but the kids are starting to figure out their assignments and get better.”
Other than a drive or two, especially late, there was some slippage, but overall Stoops saw players in the right places to make plays, which is progress from a month ago.
“Guys were straining to make plays,” Stoops said. “We weren’t just blowing assignments because bad things were happening. They got lined up and made them beat us. We didn’t beat ourselves, and I thought that was an improvement.”
Haunted by old ghosts
So many plays from Kentucky’s 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt last season haunt the Wildcats and their head coach.
Kentucky won the total yardage battle 352-301, including outgaining the Commodores on the ground 225-135.
But in six trips to the red zone, Kentucky scored only two touchdowns and a field goal, including one series where the Commodores got four straight stops at their goal line and UK came up empty.
In all there were two empty trips within the 5-yard line, a fumble near the end zone, a pick six, special teams gaffes and an unguarded Vanderbilt receiver who scored on a trick play.
“This is the first time I’ve felt like we were a better team and went in there and lost,” Stoops said after the Vanderbilt loss. “That puts the frustration at the highest point.”
He hasn’t forgotten it a year later.
“Does last year’s Vanderbilt game hurt? Absolutely,” he said Monday. “It bothers me. It’ll probably bother me for the rest of my life, yes. But this is a totally new year.”
Vanderbilt scored 14 points off of UK turnovers in that Cats loss. Kentucky comes into this year’s game as one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country with 14 (only two other teams have more).
This season the Commodores have caused three more turnovers than they’ve committed.
“A big determining factor in this game will be turnovers,” Stoops said. “Vandy has done a nice job with that. They’re giving up yards, but they’ve done a nice job with turnovers.”
News and notes
Kentucky’s leading wide receiver last season, Dorian Baker, who has played limited snaps this season while battling a hamstring injury, is expected to be fully healed and ready to practice this week.
“I do expect Dorian back at full strength this week,” Stoops said. “He’s been very close, just wasn’t able to practice all week last week and get the reps, but I think he should be out there 100 percent ready to go today.”
On the latest depth chart, Tavin Richardson moved ahead of Baker at that wide receiver spot, which Stoops said was in part due to Richardson’s play as of late, which included two catches for 24 yards against Alabama.
“Tavin’s been doing some good things, but they both will play,” Stoops said of Baker and Richardson.
▪ Baker isn’t the only UK player that is expected to be back in action this week. Starting left tackle Cole Mosier (ankle) also is expected to return.
In his place, true freshman Landon Young did some good things at Alabama, Stoops said.
“He just saw one of the most difficult situations he’ll ever be in, and he’s a true freshman,” Stoops said of the Lafayette standout. “Did some good things and got beat some, but that’s going to happen. That experience, you can’t replace that.”
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)