UK Football

UK football notebook: Cats haven't lost faith in wake of routs

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot (in white) talked to the defense during a 63-31 loss against Georgia at Commonwealth Stadium last week.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot (in white) talked to the defense during a 63-31 loss against Georgia at Commonwealth Stadium last week. Herald-Leader

Even some of Kentucky's most veteran football players are feeling the weight of four straight losses.

The 63-31 drubbing at home against Georgia last week was especially tough to stomach, senior D.J. Warren said.

"It's really difficult, I'm not going to lie," the fullback said. "I didn't sleep at all that night, didn't sleep Sunday. When you invest so much and put so much hard work into it and it doesn't go the way you plan, it can be a lot for you."

On Monday at his regular news conference to preview the Cats' matchup at Tennessee, even Coach Mark Stoops seemed unsure what the week would bring after that Georgia game.

"It's a fair question," he said. "I don't know. We'll see."

So the query looms: Can the Cats bounce back with two road games left in the season to get to a bowl game?

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown believes they can, even though UK's two most recent road games haven't exactly gone to script, bringing the number of road losses to 20 in a row.

"I have faith in them," he said this week. "I think we got quality individuals in our room. But I think that's a quality question until we do it. If we bounce back, then yeah, we know the answer to it. If we go out and have a lackluster performance, then the question's still up in the air. So I want to say yes. I want to believe in my heart yes."

Brown looks at how his offense bounced back from a baffling performance at Missouri to a decent showing against Georgia — including a 16-play scoring drive on which the Cats converted on three of their four third-down tries — and finds reasons to believe.

Consistency is key, quarterback Patrick Towles said.

"We know what it takes to win," he said. "We've done it. We just have to do it more consistently. I have all the faith in the world that these seniors, these guys, we're gonna figure it out and we're gonna go give them all they can handle down there."

For Stoops and the players on defense, it's going to be about having a short memory about the wrecking-ball Georgia offense and remembering games like Missouri.

Kentucky (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) has had several players-only meetings this season, but to senior defensive end Mike Douglas, that's all talk. He's ready to see the team come together the way he knows it can.

"There comes a point in time where there are no more words that can be said, it's all about action, you either put up or shut up," the defensive end said. "We are at a time now where you can't talk anymore. ...

"Now we are at a point where we need to come out and be focused and come out and know the mission at hand. Thank God we still have two games to prove that we are better than we have shown."

By the end of Thursday's afternoon walkthrough, Stoops seemed to have a better handle on his team's emotional fortitude heading into Tennessee (4-5, 1-4).

The message was clear: two more games to get it right, to put a complete game together for the offense, defense and special teams.

"I've seen good habits," Stoops said. "Good energy, good work ethic. I see no lingering effects of a bad game and a few games here in a row. The guys seem prepared and excited so like I said, we'll see."

Douglas doesn't care much about 20-game road losing streaks or that the Cats haven't won at Neyland Stadium since 1984 or that Kentucky has lost 28 of its last 29 games versus the Vols.

It's just the next two games that concern the senior lineman.

"There's no give-up and if you give up, you might as well stay in Lexington when we travel on the road," he said.

Prepare for some wrestling?

Stoops shut down the premise before the question was even out of a reporter's mouth: Why have his Cats struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks like the one they'll face on Saturday in Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs?

"I was gonna say, 'Well, look around,'" Stoops said, referencing the rest of the country. "They cause problems for a lot of people. They just do. They put a lot of stress on you."

Dobbs, who just took over the starting job for the Volunteers a game ago, has become a bit of a cult hero as he helped lead Tennessee in an overtime win over South Carolina two weeks ago.

He became the first quarterback in Tennessee history to go for 300-plus yards passing and 100-plus yards rushing in the same game. His 166 yards on the ground were a Vols record as well.

Dobbs, who has completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 493 yards and four touchdowns in his two games this season, is going to be a handful.

"They've certainly found something with the way they're calling plays, with the style that they're calling them, and it suits him," Stoops said, also noting that Dobbs has quite the complement in true freshman tailback Jalen Hurd. "It fits him. So he's running it and throwing it very well."

Dobbs did his share of damage at Kentucky last season, including a 40-yard touchdown run. The sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., also threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns.

Tennessee Coach Butch Jones noted that Kentucky isn't the only defense having to prepare for the frustrations that come with a quarterback who doesn't mind making plays with his feet.

Jones has been watching Towles do that since he tried to recruit him to Cincinnati a few years ago. "That's what makes him who he is, the ability to create plays with his legs," Jones said.

It's a challenge both teams are going to have to be ready for.

"It's basically wrestling," Jones continued. "So, there's so much that goes into it, but when you can have players that can create plays on their own that's another challenge."

Third down sound

While the Cats try to solve their road woes, which include 20 straight losses dating to the season opener at Louisville in 2010, the Volunteers are trying to solve a pesky problem at home.

The 100,000-plus at Neyland Stadium have been so overzealous on opponents' third-down attempts that it's hurting the Tennessee defense, too.

"When you play at home, the crowd noise impacts your defense," Jones said this week. "And so again, it is our defense understanding how to communicate when we play home games. So we have really, really stressed that."

The Volunteers are holding opponents to 34.8 percent on third down, which is in the top 25 nationally.

The home crowd definitely has hindered the effort, though, with foes converting on 37.5 percent of their attempts at home (68th in the country) versus on the road where opponents have converted on 30.9 percent, 13th-best nationally.

For its part, the Kentucky offense, which is 12th in the league on third-down conversions at 36.6 percent, says that crowd noise isn't a problem because it uses a silent count exclusively.

The stats seem to say otherwise, though, with UK converting on only 26.5 percent of its third downs on the road, better than only eight other teams in the country.

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