Same old Kentucky.
How many times have we heard that? Long-standing faithful followers of Kentucky football know the chronic lament. Give up a long touchdown on the game’s very first play. Same Old Kentucky. Turn the ball over on your first two possessions. Same Old Kentucky. Go to a bowl and start the next season 2-0 and no one’s convinced. Same Old Kentucky.
That, more than anything, was what fueled Mark Stoops’ fiery postgame reaction to UK’s 23-13 win at South Carolina on Saturday night as the Cats prepare for another yardstick game, Saturday night versus Florida at Kroger Field.
The Kentucky head coach has been a Kentuckian just five years. He was spared the losing and the disappointments and the false hopes of all those years before. He’s read the history. He’s heard it. But he hadn’t lived it.
So when the experts, including the smart ones in Las Vegas, picked South Carolina to beat the Cats, Stoops took it personally. He knew his team had beaten the Gamecocks three straight years. He knew his team was improved. Thus he could not understand why UK was so easily dismissed as the underdog, the mindset behind Same Old Kentucky.
This isn’t the Same Old Kentucky.
Saturday, the Cats proved it. Their start was disastrous. That 68-yard TD pass to South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel. First possession, Stephen Johnson threw an interception. Second possession, the Cats fumbled away yet another bad shotgun snap. “And that doesn’t even faze us,” said Stoops afterward. “That’s what I love about this team.”
To be sure, South Carolina aided the Cats’ cause when the home team’s captains refused to shake hands during the pregame coin toss. It was an incredibly stupid stunt by a team trying to bully, trying to act all tough. The coin toss is not the time for toughness. The 60 minutes after the coin toss is the time for toughness.
All those motivational issues — who picked which team to win; showing pregame disrespect; moronic macho posturing — means zilch without good players, of course. Talent is the bottom line. And after five years of recruiting and developing, it’s clear Stoops has some pretty good football players. And more of them.
Eli Brown steps in for injured All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones and Kentucky held South Carolina to 54 yards rushing. The offensive line, mixing and matching because of injury and graduation, had its best game of the young season. Senior wide receiver Garrett Johnson, even more of a focal point without injured teammate Dorian Baker, made two third-down catches behind the sticks Saturday and through grit and guile turns them into important first downs.
UK has won 10 of its last 13 regular-season games and four of its last five true road games. That isn’t the Same Old Kentucky.
To capitalize on last season’s bowl bid, UK had to take one important step forward. It had to start stopping the run. It finished the 2016 season ranked 110th nationally in run defense. Three games into 2017, Kentucky is ranked third.
“Just fundamentally playing the right way and playing with the same passion and every assignment sharp,” said Stoops on Saturday when asked about the improvement in his defensive line. “That’s what gets so aggravating, the structure of things break down. That was something we were going to get fixed. People may run it; they may throw it, whatever, but our structure’s going to be right and I think we’re on the right track.”
Now Florida comes to town. Kentucky hasn’t been 2-0 in the SEC since 1977. Florida is a huge reason why not. When the league expanded in 1992, the Gators moved from a November to September on the Cats’ calendar. And Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986. And most years, including last year’s 45-7 throttling, the Cats never had chance.
That was the Same Old Kentucky. Saturday night brings the next chance to prove it is anything but the same.
Florida at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)
SEC football standings and results
Beat host South Carolina 23-13
Beat Tennessee 26-20
Beat Samford 42-14
Beat Kansas State 14-7
Lost 23-13 to Kentucky
Lost 26-20 at Florida
Lost 35-3 to Purdue
Beat LSU 37-7
Beat Colorado Sate 41-23
Beat Mercer 24-10
Lost 27-16 at California
Beat Louisiana 45-21
Lost 37-7 at Miss State
This week’s SEC football schedule
Saturday, Sept. 23
- 12:00 - UMass at Tennessee (SEC)
- 12:00 - Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (ESPN)
- 3:30 - Alabama at Vanderbilt (SEC)
- 3:30 - Louisiana Tech at South Carolina (SEC)
- 7:00 - Syracuse at LSU (ESPN2)
- 7:00 - Mississippi State at Georgia (ESPN)
- 7:30 - Auburn at Missouri (ESPNU)
- 7:30 - Florida at Kentucky (SEC)