Last season it was all Kentucky could talk about: Getting to that sixth victory and playing in a bowl game.
Now it was just something to talk about, but the discussion went much deeper than that after the Cats’ come-from-behind 29-26 victory over Tennessee.
“We didn’t even really address it because we felt hopefully we have moved beyond that,” Coach Mark Stoops said of gaining bowl eligibility with four games remaining in the regular season. “I hope we want more than that.”
His players certainly seemed to want more than that.
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“It’s great that we’re bowl eligible,” junior Denzil Ware said. “It’s something we can get off the back of our neck now. It’s something we can take off the chalk board, but at the end of the day, we have a bigger goal, a bigger prize.”
His fellow defensive end mapped out the Cats’ plan.
“We’re not settling for six wins or bowl eligibility,” he said. “That’s cool and all, but we’re trying to win every single game and prepare for that every week. We want to go to the SEC championship. That’s really on our minds.”
That starts next week against Ole Miss at Kroger Field and then there are two straight road games at Vanderbilt and then at Southeastern Conference East Division leader Georgia before returning home on Nov. 25 to face Louisville.
Getting that bowl eligibility late last season against Austin Peay allowed Kentucky to play more freely at Louisville a season ago, Stoops said.
The head coach hopes it can do the same going forward for this team.
“We still have three or four games of the regular season left and that’s awesome,” linebacker Jordan Jones said. “And we still have so much time to build as a team. We can only get better.”
A win for the past, too
It was fun seeing former Kentucky greats roaming the halls of the new practice facility this week, Cats players and coaches said.
“Coach told me, he’s like, ‘Get this one,’” Stoops relayed. “He said, ‘I was never able to get Tennessee.’
“It was important for him for us to get that and for us to win and for all the ex-players that are here and build our tradition and it’s important to me and these players.”
Former UK and current Green Bay Packers star Randall Cobb spoke to the team this week.
“They gave us so much energy and so much hope,” running back Benny Snell said.
Jones saw Wesley Woodyard after the game and they exchanged knowing smiles.
“Us getting it done for them, it means a lot to us,” the UK linebacker said. “It meant a lot to them, too.”
Lingering issues after QB injury?
There was a sling on his left arm and a massive ice bag on his left shoulder, but quarterback Stephen Johnson was all smiles after scoring the go-ahead touchdown late Saturday night.
“There’s not many players that probably would have came back and even played in that situation,” Stoops said of his quarterback, who injured the shoulder and then came back in the game and played through the pain.
“He’s absolutely tough as nails and we have so much respect and pride for him and our team does and he led us tonight and led us on that drive and like I said, I don’t think many players would have played in that situation.”
That never crossed Johnson’s mind. “I definitely was going to continue playing this game,” he said, noting that he took a few Ibuprofen after the victory.
Is it an injury that could be a problem for next week and the week after that? Maybe.
“It could, it could,” Stoops said. “It’s an injury that’s painful that players — luckily it’s on his non-throwing shoulder, so but it’s not anything that he shouldn’t be out there for this week.”
Many happy returns
There was a bit of rust to knock off after missing four straight games with a shoulder injury, linebacker Jordan Jones admitted.
He felt a step slow in his return at Mississippi State a week ago, but he started to look and feel like his former self against the Volunteers on Saturday, leading Kentucky with 13 tackles, including two for loss and a sack in the victory.
“It felt good flying around, making tackles with my brothers out there; felt good getting that win,” said Jones, who admitted he’s still not 100 percent back.
That time away helped remind the junior how much he loves the game.
“Missing four games is tough,” he said. “When you’re taken away from the game, it’s a whole other feeling, so to finally be back and be healthy and be able to play with my teammates is just awesome.”
What did he learn from that time away with a shoulder injury?
“Football’s all I got,” he said. “I’m going to give the University of Kentucky coaches and teammates and everyone in the program everything I’ve got. … I just know this is my life.”
Jones, who had declined all interviews since the start of the season before Saturday, also addressed the incident at Southern Miss to open the season when the junior linebacker was caught jawing with fans in the stands and spitting in their direction.
“I never really got a chance to apologize, either,” he said. “I’m sorry for that. It’s not who I am. I just let the emotions get the best of me. First game, first road game of the season, I just let the emotions get the best of me for sure.”