UK Football

UK football notebook: Cats feel better prepared for big-game atmosphere this time

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops watched the Cats play Eastern Kentucky in Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, October 3. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops watched the Cats play Eastern Kentucky in Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, October 3. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

The last time Kentucky's players had a game with high hopes and high hype, they didn't handle it well.

"We were just too uptight," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said a few days after the loss to Florida.

"We wanted it too bad and we were just pressing too hard. And when you press like that, naturally things aren't going to happen."

The same came from quarterback Patrick Towles after the defeat on Sept. 19: "I think sometimes you can want it too much."

That 14-9 loss to Florida might make Thursday night's game against Auburn — with its big-game atmosphere and the ESPN trucks idling outside — a little easier for the UK players to process this time around.

"It sets up in a similar way," Coach Mark Stoops said comparing the Auburn and Florida games. "The difference is we have some experience under our belt and we've been in that situation."

Some takeaways from that Florida loss included not getting caught up in the moment, Towles said last week. "We've got to focus on just going out there and playing and having fun."

For offensive lineman Jordan Swindle, it will be about players doing their specific jobs and not trying to do too much.

"We don't need to worry about who's going to be there or who's watching or anything like that," the senior said of the game against Auburn (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference).

"It's not like you can say, 'Oh, let me not play tight.' You just have to worry about doing your job."

Safety A.J. Stamps said the goal moving forward is to "just do what you're taught to do and not put an 'S' on your chest and be something you're not. Just go out there and do your assignment."

After going 4-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play, including all five games being decided by eight points or fewer, Kentucky's coaches have seen a team that learned lessons from that loss to Florida, which the Cats followed up with a victory over a ranked Missouri team.

"Hopefully we'll learn from that game and all the close games we've had and be able to handle the emotions of the game," Stoops said. "It'll be a fun atmosphere and we're excited about it."

Pushing the pace

Auburn's offense hasn't been able to go quite as quickly as Coach Gus Malzahn would like this season, including games against Louisiana State and most recently against San Jose State where the Tigers didn't even crack 60 plays.

But Kentucky's coaches still have prepared the defense for a sprint Thursday night. Regularly playing against the UK offense, which mixes in tempo from time to time, has been helpful.

"That urgency, that getting lined up, that communication is something we constantly try to stress, but it doesn't make it any easier," Mark Stoops said. "It's very difficult."

It's been a point of emphasis this week.

"You have to be able to think fast and you have to be able to line up fast; you have to be able to communicate fast," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Those are offenses that make a lot of pain on you just not getting lined up."

Kentucky's defensive line won't have as many problems against a tempo offense now because of added depth. Players don't just go in on third down; they're versatile enough to stay in for an entire series and still mix things up, line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.

'Hurry up and wait'

For normal night games on Saturdays, Kentucky's players are able to spend down time relaxing in their hotel rooms watching other football games.

It's a tad different for a Thursday night game.

"They'll have to watch some soap operas or something," Stoops joked this week.

It can make for a long day, UK's offensive coordinator agreed.

"Typically you can fill that void on Saturday if it's a late game because there's games," Dawson said. "You can watch stuff on TV or whatever, but it's just more of a hurry up and wait mentality. It's just a lot of sitting around."

As for the prep days leading up to it, coaches tried to maintain a regular game-week schedule despite the change, like doing usual Monday prep work, but on Saturday instead.

That way of thinking threw Stoops off a little on Wednesday when he admitted he almost forgot about the weekly SEC coaches' teleconference on that day as he prepared his usual last-minute notes for the team like it was a Friday.

Extras and updates

In his last opportunity to discuss the Auburn quarterback situation, Malzahn said during Wednesday's SEC coaches' teleconference that the Tigers' starter would be a game-time decision.

"Both have responded; both have improved," he said of Sean White and Jeremy Johnson, the more mobile of the two signal callers. Malzahn said the competition has been good for everyone and that his team has responded well to being off since a 35-21 victory over San Jose State on Oct. 3.

■ UK defensive tackle C.J. Johnson, who has 30 tackles in the past two games, probably will be able to play on Thursday after suffering an ankle injury early in the week, Stoops said. The coach also is optimistic that kicker Austin MacGinnis (groin strain) will be able to play. MacGinnis could be key against Auburn, which is fifth nationally in kick returns averaging 31.1 yards a return. Reserve linebacker Jordan Jones is still questionable for Thursday.

■ After leading the Cats in interceptions last season with four, safety A.J. Stamps doesn't have one going into UK's sixth game of the season. "It has been on my mind, but I try not to let it affect my game," he said this week. "I just try to stick to the scheme and stick to what I have to do and hopefully it will come to me like last year."

That stat was made especially painful by a recent called back pick-six. But Stamps remains optimistic. "Hopefully I'll just take advantage of the next one that comes my way and hopefully I can catch that one."

Maybe as early as Auburn, which has thrown seven interceptions in its first five games. UK hasn't recorded a pick in the past two games.

Jimmy Brumbaugh will face his alma mater for the fourth time in his coaching career after doing it twice at LSU and once at Louisiana Tech. The UK defensive line coach, who was a First Team All-SEC standout at Auburn, will see a lot of familiar faces across the field including Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, a graduate assistant when Brumbaugh played there. Brumbaugh was Tigers teammates with Travaris Robinson, now defensive backs coach. Associate head coach and defensive line coach Rodney Garner recruited Brumbaugh to Auburn.