Mark Story

The one thing Mark Stoops has to change for UK football success

Looking drawn but determined, Mark Stoops lamented Monday a dynamic that has haunted Kentucky football coaches since the days of black-and-white TV.

As Stoops analyzed how Kentucky went from ahead 35-10 to losing Saturday’s 2016 season opener 44-35 to Southern Mississippi, the frustration lifted off the UK head coach like heat rises off of asphalt.

“I could think of five plays, where, we make any one of those, and we win the game,” Stoops said at his weekly news conference. “It comes down to making plays.”

If The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans had one dollar for each time they’ve heard a Kentucky coach say such a thing, the commonwealth would lead the nation in millionaires.

With precious few exceptions — wins over South Carolina in 2014 and ’15, Missouri last year — Stoops-era UK teams have not produced under game-winning pressure. Rather, they’ve fallen into a distressing pattern of wilting in the face of adversity.

How else can you describe losing back-to-back games in which you took halftime leads of 24-7 (Louisville in the 2015 season finale) and 35-17 (Saturday night) only to suffer losses of 38-24 and 44-35, respectively?

If Stoops (12-25 as Kentucky’s head coach) is to turn the negative tide, his team buckling when things get tough has to change.

“The thing that we have to do, have to get coached, is when things go wrong, we have to go back and execute,” Stoops said. “When things go wrong, we have guys that start doing some things that are inexcusable. And that’s gotta stop. That’s a losing mentality that we will not tolerate it.”

Kentucky football history is rife with excruciating failures in game-defining moments, of course.

Failing to cover the post and allowing Florida to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in 1993.

Not one, not two, but three UK defenders failing to knock down that LSU Hail Mary in 2002.

Getting what should have been the game-winning field goal blocked in the second overtime against Tennessee in 2007.

That’s just to name three.

Yet those who say such things as Saturday night’s second-half meltdown against Southern Miss are an inevitable part of the Kentucky football experience are wrong.

Teams representing Kentucky can learn to successfully close out games. If nothing else, that should be the lesson of the five-year UK bowl streak that ran from 2006-10.

During a span that began in 2006 when Rich Brooks’ Cats rallied to beat Georgia and ended in 2010 when Joker Phillips’ team came from behind to slay the dragon Spurrier, UK won 14 games in which it trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter.

Three times in that period, Kentucky rallied in the final quarter to knock off top-10 foes. One of those, LSU in 2007, went on to win the BCS Championship. Another, South Carolina in 2010, won the SEC East.

There were fourth-quarter rallies to win SEC road games in challenging environments at Auburn and Georgia (both in 2009), too.

After enduring some lean years, the nucleus of Andre Woodson, Kennan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Wesley Woodyard, etc., figured out by 2006 that it is not written in the U.S. Constitution that Kentucky football teams are obligated to fold in tight situations.

That knowledge seemed to be passed down to the Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke nucleus.

It was that ability to win UK’s share of the tough ones that seemingly got away as the Kentucky program “slipped back” after Cobb and Locke departed in 2010.

Whether Stoops ultimately survives as Kentucky coach largely depends on the current Cats rediscovering how to make winning plays when faced with game-changing adversity.

“Guys that are having a losing mentality or (are making) a losing play when the game’s on the line is unacceptable,” Stoops said. “You’re not going to win when that happens.”

Facing a road trip to Florida at a time when the atmosphere around UK football is roiled with negativity, Stoops was asked how a coaching staff can teach a team to make plays when it matters.

Either by changing attitudes or by changing players, Stoops said.

“We’ve either gotta change them,” Stoops said, “(or) sometimes after so many opportunities ... they either can’t change or won’t change. So we’ve got to continue to find guys that can get (winning attributes).”

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