Just one day into this football game week, Mark Stoops was walking a tight rope with tightly gritted teeth while trying to keep a smile on his face.
It was an interesting balancing act for the Kentucky head coach as his team tries to rebound from a difficult, last-second home loss to Ole Miss and prepare for a game at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
It was a full Monday for the Cats’ coach, which included a meeting with the media, some film breakdown with the team from a painful loss followed by a call-in show where he oscillated from critical leader to head cheerleader.
At his weekly media luncheon Monday, a reporter asked Stoops about Kentucky’s 8-3 record in games decided by seven points or fewer in the last two seasons.
Seeing where UK was when Stoops arrived and where it is now puts it in a different perspective, the reporter suggested.
“I’m going to let you state that, but that was well said,” Stoops said, smiling through pursed lips. “I’m agreeing with you, but I can’t.”
He can’t agree with that premise completely because he wants to be 11-0 this season and every season.
He can’t agree with that premise completely because he knows that Kentucky is less than a handful of plays away from being 8-1 instead of 6-3, which is the frustrating part for fans and their fifth-year head coach.
“The what-ifs of one play here and one play there and that’s what hurts,” said Stoops, whose what-ifs this season include two uncovered Florida receivers who scored touchdowns, and one long drive and an amazing throw and catch in the final seconds last week versus Ole Miss.
The what-ifs of one play here and one play there and that’s what hurts. That’s what you have to get corrected.
“That’s what you have to get corrected,” Stoops continued. “A play here and a play there in two different games and we’re sitting here at (8-1) and things are a whole lot different. That’s the positive from it, but it also hurts. It’s also frustrating. I get it. I accept that.”
Behind closed doors in the football practice facility, these are teachable moments — for both coaches and players — that could be the difference in the next game.
“The good news for them is we know there’s one or two or three plays and we’re sitting here at (8-1),” he said of Kentucky (6-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference). “That’s not always been the case.”
Statistics this season show the razor-thin margin for Kentucky.
The Cats have been outscored by opponents by just one point this season, 236-235. In points off turnovers, UK is outscoring its opponents by four points.
Kentucky, which is averaging 5.6 yards per play and allowing 5.8 yards per play, has 27 touchdowns this season compared to its 29 allowed.
UK’s offense has given up as many sacks (22) as its defense has managed to collect.
“We’ve got to find a way to make a play here or there in certain situations to find a way to win the game,” Stoops said on his radio show Monday night, before noting in the next breath that the 8-3 record in one-possession games says the Cats are doing that already.
“It’s not like this team doesn’t do that,” he said. “We’d all like to do it every week and it stinks when you come up on the short end. I get it. I’m as frustrated as anybody.”
Among the frustrations he shares with fans is the play of the Kentucky secondary, which has been gashed for 279.4 yards a game, worst in the SEC and in the bottom 10 nationally.
While declaring that some of those numbers are deceptive, Stoops also said the home run plays given up by that group aren’t acceptable. It could get worse against a Vandy passing attack that is fifth in the league behind Kyle Shurmur (20 touchdowns to three interceptions).
Kentucky has been outscored 236-235 this season, but its record is 6-3. It could easily be 8-1.
“There are things we’ve gotta get ironed out and fixed in some coverages that we will, but again, we’re a play away from sitting here feeling a little better about yourself than you do,” he said.
Being a play or two away doesn’t make fans, players or coaches feel any better going into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5), but the team can’t focus on what might have been when there’s still plenty for which to play, the coach said.
Stoops’ players sounded ready to get back to work even minutes after the 37-34 loss on Saturday.
“You’ve got to keep your head up because this is a grown-man’s league,” junior tight end C.J. Conrad said. “You cannot pout. It’s going to suck tonight, tomorrow, but Monday comes and we have to watch this film, get back to work because we have a great opponent coming.”
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)