Mark Story

Mark Story: In perception game, Stoops and UK have a whole lot at stake against UT and U of L

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked off the field Saturday after the game ended.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked off the field Saturday after the game ended. Herald-Leader

Whatever happens in Kentucky's final two football games of the year, Saturday at Tennessee and Nov. 29 at Louisville, what UK has already done in 2014 is program progress.

With five wins, the Wildcats (5-5) have won more games than they did in 2012 and '13 (four) combined.

After going 0-16 in SEC games in the prior two seasons, Kentucky has two league victories so far in 2014.

Yet with the Wildcats amidst a four-game losing streak in which they've been outscored 169-75, a celebration of "progress" is about the last thing one senses with UK football fans right now.

For Mark Stoops, this feels like the first real period of testing in his still young head coaching career.

While going 2-10 in 2013, Stoops and staff got (and deserved) a free pass based on having inherited a program that was near rock bottom.

In the first six games of this year, UK produced five wins, beat South Carolina and came achingly close to besting Florida before falling in triple overtime on the road.

That fast start coupled with all the good vibrations Stoops has created with perceived recruiting success stamped UK football as a program on the rise.

Four straight losses later, the perception of UK football as an up-and-comer looks a bit wobbly.

Against a schedule back-loaded with difficult games, Kentucky has performed like a see-saw.

In a 41-3 loss at LSU, the UK defense fought hard, especially early, but the offense looked overmatched.

The following week, while losing 45-31 to No. 1 Mississippi State, the Kentucky offense was potent, but the defense got throttled.

During a 20-10 loss at Missouri, the defense kept the Wildcats alive but the offense was punchless.

Then, in the embarrassing 63-31 loss to Georgia Saturday, the Kentucky D literally did not stop the Bulldogs one time, while the Cats offense showed some life.

"It's been the offense playing well, then the defense playing well, trading off," Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. "We have not put it all together."

The Kentucky special teams and its coach, newcomer Craig Naivar, have become lightning rods for fan criticism during the losing skid. The Wildcats have allowed four kick-return touchdowns in the past four games — two on punts, two on kickoffs (one of them coming on an onside kick vs. Mississippi State).

In his UK tenure, Stoops had adroitly walked the line of being honest about the state of the program without throwing individual players under the bus.

On Monday, uncharacteristically, the coach gave a withering public assessment of sophomore J.D. Harmon's play on special teams. He essentially said the ex-Paducah Tilghman standout — who came to UK as a walk-on under Joker Phillips before Stoops put him on scholarship — was hurting the team by going rogue.

"The thing that I was talking about the past couple of weeks, you've heard me talk about having the toughness and attitude to do what you're asked to do," Stoops said. "I've got a certain player out there that did not do that. That's a choice. That's aggravating."

Stoops noted that the player in question was one "I have rewarded with scholarships and done some things and put it out there to help him and he's making a decision not to help us by doing his own thing."

Asked if he were referring to Harmon, Stoops said "Yes."

Once the frustration of the moment dissipates, I wonder whether Stoops will regret being that critical in public about one of his players. He should.

For me, the goal of the 2014 Kentucky season has always been for the Wildcats to play well enough that Stoops and his staff can maintain recruiting momentum. The blowout losses to LSU and Georgia and the listless offensive effort at Missouri could have imperiled that.

Tennessee and Louisville are opportunities for UK to flip the narrative back in a more positive direction. "We have two big rival games left," Stoops said. "Let's put that together and go have a great week."

Winning at least one of the games would mean bowl eligibility for UK. Whatever happens, the Cats need to play well enough against The Rocky Toppers and The Ville to leave a better taste than currently exists about the arc of their season.