John Clay

Mark Stoops had a frustrating bowl day, but better days might lie ahead

It turned out being in a bowl game was not all that much fun for Mark Stoops.

You know the feeling of when you get somewhere you always wanted to go and it doesn’t turn out to be quite what you expected it to be?

That was sort of the way Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl went for the Kentucky football coach, whose team lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech before an announced crowd of 43,102 at EverBank Field.

To be sure, Stoops loved earning the invitation, was tickled with the additional practice time for his young team, celebrated the trip to the Sunshine State and enjoyed the week of festivities leading up to the main event.

But then they had to spoil it all by playing the game. Four plays in, Georgia Tech linebacker P.J. Davis was scooping up a fumble by UK quarterback Stephen Johnson and returning it 38 yards for a Georgia Tech touchdown. Soon after, the Wildcats trailed 10-0. Later on, it was 17-3. Then 20-3. And 23-3. And 26-10. You get the idea.

“We just didn’t get it done today, at all,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

And if battling Georgia Tech wasn’t difficult enough, Stoops spent a significant amount of his New Year’s Eve battling the group of Big 12 officials assigned to the game. A first half of disagreements came to a head when a series of controversial and unexplained events regarding the clock helped Georgia Tech kick a field goal on the final play of the half to extend its lead to 20-3. After the Cats retreated to the dressing room, Stoops stuck around to carry on a prolonged conversation with his friends in stripes on their way to their dressing room.

Stoops did confirm that he was indeed part of a give-and-take with the Georgia Tech sideline after the Yellow Jackets were called for a clip and a couple of Kentucky defensive linemen were injured on what appeared to be the cut blocks Tech uses in its option offense.

“I was upset with somebody saying something to me,” Stoops explained later. “I have great respect for Coach Johnson, but nobody else over there is going to say a word to me.”

Indeed, after the game was over, Stoops and Johnson were talking it out in a friendly fashion in the tunnel outside the locker rooms. Bottom line: Cooler heads prevailed.

The same should be said of the entire bowl experience, an oddity that doesn’t really represent the week-to-week nature of the college football season. It has been a month since you played your last game. You spend the week before touring ships and attending luncheons and having your fans applaud and snap pictures as you walk through the hotel lobby before you play in a stadium you’ve never seen before.

Georgia Tech had done all that before. This was the eighth bowl game in Johnson’s nine years as Tech’s coach. The Jackets knew the deal and the played like a team well aware that after the hoopla there is still a game to win. This was Stoops’ first bowl experience as a head coach. His Cats played like a team just happy to be invited to the party.

That’s no surprise. For this particular team and this particular program, the whole thing was a learning experience. That’s the good news. Want to hear the better news? Given the talent returning, there’s no reason Kentucky won’t be applying what it learned this year in a bowl game next year.

“I think as we get a taste for this, we will want more,” said Stoops afterward. “They know that we can win, we’re capable of it. We can play with anybody we line up with. We just got to get better and build on it. I’m sure we will.”

Cornerback Derrick Baity summed it up, saying, “We got to a bowl game together; now we’re going to win a bowl game together.”

That’s what really makes a bowl game fun.

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