So many times this season, when things got tough, Kentucky just wasn’t tough enough.
That was the resounding message from Coach Mark Stoops’ news conference after Kentucky had lost its sixth game in the last seven, a 38-24 loss to Louisville.
“To the guys that are coming back in that locker room, we’re going to get to work,” Stoops continued. “We’re going to have a grueling offseason, get mentally and physically tougher.
“We’ve got to kick it up some serious notches to compete at a higher level. And we will do that. We’ve got a good nucleus of players coming back, and we’ve got to coach them better and work harder in the offseason.”
Quarterback Drew Barker agreed with his head coach.
“If he says it, it’s definitely true,” Barker said. “That’s going to be the main emphasis: just going in and grind hard in the offseason and get better.”
Several players said the Cats’ mental toughness will have to be the focus. Running back Mikel Horton said he never felt like UK wasn’t as physically tough as its opponents.
But the mental toughness — especially when games change like they did against Louisville, which came back from 21 points down to win it with 31 unanswered points — is still missing in action.
“That’s our biggest thing: mentally,” Horton said. “Mentally, mental toughness. Fight through it. Fight through the adversity, fight through the little things whatever we want. We’ve got to learn.”
When adversity hits, Kentucky has got to hit back.
“Stop when adversity comes, find that and cut it off,” Horton continued. “Progress instead of stepping back, and that’s what I feel we need to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
It wasn’t just on the offensive side of the ball. When things went wrong for Kentucky’s defense, it didn’t have the toughness to fight through, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
“We lost momentum, and we didn’t get it back,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job as coaches getting the momentum back, and the players have got to do a better job responding to adversity.”
Senior defensive lineman Farrington Huguenin said one person he thinks will handle the adversity of a second straight 5-7 season is Stoops.
“Kentucky is not in trouble,” Huguenin said. “I don’t think Mark Stoops is going anywhere. Definitely got some young guys that’s going to take control.”
Stoops remained positive in the face of negative on Saturday: “This won’t hurt our momentum in recruiting and developing our team and our program. We’re going to continue to get better, believe me.”
‘Look at all aspects of our program’
After a team loses six of its final seven games in year three, questions arise about the future of members of the staff.
Stoops was not ready to answer those questions after the loss to Louisville.
“I’m not going to get into that right now,” he said when asked if there needed to be coaching or staff changes. “You know, I’m disappointed in this loss, as all you and our fans. And everybody that cares about Kentucky is disappointed and frustrated.
“We’ll look at all aspects of our program to make it a program that everybody’s proud of.”
Everyone on the team and the staff is accountable in some way, he continued.
“We’ll all look at ourselves in the mirror and see what we can do to get better and I’ll evaluate all aspects of the program,” he said.
One coach who seemed to get a strong vote of confidence was Shannon Dawson. The Cats averaged 24.7 points a game this season. His quarterbacks threw for 10 touchdowns to 16 interceptions.
“Absolutely have confidence in Shannon Dawson,” Stoops said. “He’s a very good coach, very knowledgeable.”
The head coach said it gets frustrating for the play caller on both side of the ball when things are going well and players aren’t making the plays.
“There’s only so many good play calls; at some point, you have to win some one-on-one battles,” Stoops continued. “I have a lot of confidence in Shannon. He’ll get the ship corrected and straightened out and get the guys competing at a higher level.”
News and notes
▪ There will be at least two 5-7 bowl teams and as many as five needed to fill out the 80 vacant bowl spots, according to ESPN football writer Brett McMurphy. There is no word yet on how the NCAA will decide which 5-7 teams are invited to the bowls, when that will be determined or how that will impact Kentucky.
▪ Kentucky said farewell to 19 seniors for the team’s annual Senior Day festivities. It was a tough way to say goodbye, Stoops said. “I love those guys. They’re really good kids that really gave us everything they had. I feel bad for them.”
Several senior defenders had big plays on Saturday, including an 81-yard interception return for a touchdown for linebacker Josh Forrest. It was the longest in Governor’s Cup history and the longest for a UK player since 2002. … Senior A.J. Stamps had a team-best nine tackles and intercepted his first pass of the season.