Three things from Mark Stoops’ Monday press conference in which the Kentucky coach discussed last Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Georgia and this Saturday’s game at Tennessee:
1. The recipe was right
Especially at the start of the presser, Stoops was adamant to the point of passionate when talking about the way his team prepared for last Saturday, the way his coaches coached and, or the most part, the way his team played.
“The recipe was right,” Stoops said more than once.
Ultimately, the defeat came down to a few plays, a few opportunities that Kentucky did not convert. And while fans and media focus on the plays at the end of games, Stoops said you never know when a play happens that will end up affecting the outcome of the game.
“If you do the little things right, the big things don’t seem so big,” he said.
It should be noted that for a young team, especially on defense, Saturday was the first time the Cats had been in that position, trying to extend a three-game win streak with a chance to take over first place in the division. And Kentucky didn’t play badly in the three-point loss to the Bulldogs, it just didn’t make enough plays to win the game.
2. That painful final drive
No, not Kentucky’s final drive. We’re talking Georgia’s final drive. Kentucky’s Austin MacGinnis had kicked a 25-yard field goal with 2:47 remaining to tie the game at 24-24. A touchback on the ensuing kickoff gave the Bulldogs the ball at their 25. Nine snaps later, the visitors kicked a 25-yard field goal to win the game as time ran out.
“That was hard to watch,” said Stoops of going back and watching the video. “I didn’t want to watch it.”
One of the key plays in the drive was the second play, a second-and-eight at the Georgia 27. Quarterback Jacob Eason hit Javon Wims for what turned into a 12-yard gain for a first down before the receiver was tackled by UK corner Chris Westry.
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Stoops explained Monday that there was a communication problem during that drive. The defensive call wasn’t relayed to the corner on the far side of the field, which in that case was Westry. Instead of playing tight enough to keep the completion a short gain -- the previous Eason pass to tight end Isaac Nauta gained just yards -- the coverage allowed the Bulldogs did get double-digit yardage and a first down. A little thing that led to big things later on.
That brought a new set of downs, but pretty much the same scenario. Running back Nick Chubb picked up three yards on first down, then Eason again when to Wims on the right (far) sideline and again the receiver picked up 12 yards before being forced out of bounds by Westry with 1:09 left. That gave Georgia a first down at the UK 46.
Next play, Eason came to his left side to receiver Terry Godwin. The corner on the near side, Derrick Baity, somehow got out of position on the play and Godwin ended up with a 16-yard gain to the UK 30 with under a minute to play.
From there, you can debate Kentucky’s clock management. Stoops opted to hold on to his two remaining timeouts so as not to give the Bulldogs more time. (He finally used one to try and ice the kicker with three seconds left.) After the first down at the 30, Georgia ran just three more plays. Sony Michel picked up two yards, then 13 more before the Bulldogs called time with 20 seconds left. Then Michel gained seven more yards. Georgia used its final timeout with three seconds remaining. Rodrigo Blakenship then booted the game-winner.
Westry is a sophomore. Baity is a sophomore. Surely being in that position, final drive, game on the line, high stakes, will help the two talented young players in the future.
3. Don’t ever quit your cattle on a stormy night
That was Stoops’ parting shot as he left the podium on Monday. It’s an old cowboy saying -- maybe something Mark got from his brother Bob in Oklahoma -- which means keep moving forward in the face of adversity. Stay loyal. Keep working. Keep grinding.
From here, the Cats move on to Tennessee for a Saturday noon game in Knoxville on the SEC Network. The Vols are 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the conference. To this point, it’s been a disappointing season in Knoxville. After all, the Vols were picked to win the division. Injuries and turmoil have helped block the path.
The biggest news came last when leading rusher Jalen Hurd announced he was transferring. As a freshman in 2014, Hurd rushed for 899 yards. Last year as a sophomore, he rushed for 1,288 yards on 277 carries. In the pre-season, I ranked him as the second-best running back UK would face in 2016.
Things did not go according to plan. In seven games, Hurd has rushed for just 451 yards, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. He had gained 100 yards in a game just once, in UT’s opening overtime win over Appalachian State. He missed the loss at Texas A&M because of a concussion, gained just 28 yards on 13 carries against Alabama, then was pretty much replaced by John Kelly at South Carolina.
Hurd finally spoke out Sunday, posting a long statement to Twitter. He basically blamed injuries and the offensive scheme for wanting to play his senior season elsewhere.
Then, despite a 45-0 win over Tennessee Tech, the Vols got more bad news Monday when it was revealed that safety and standout kick returner Evan Berry is out for the remainder of the season because of a knee injury. He ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown against Kentucky last season.
Tennessee did get one piece of good news. Running back Alvin Kamara, who rushed for 127 yards in the Texas A&M game, should be back at practice after sitting out last Saturday.
Despite being banged-up, however, Tennessee is talented. Quarterback Josh Dobbs has been up and down this season, but has given Kentucky fits the last two years. And Monday, Stoops complimented the big-play ability of Tennessee’s receivers.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky coach preached more of the same. He believes his team and program is headed in the right direction. The loss to Georgia did nothing to shake that belief.
SEC football schedule Saturday
12:00 - Kentucky at Tennessee (SEC)
12:00 - Mississippi State at Alabama (ESPN)
12:00 - South Carolina at Florida (CBS)
3:30 - Auburn at Georgia (CBS)
3:30 - Vanderbilt at Missouri (SEC)
7:00 - LSU at Arkansas (ESPN)
7:30 - Ole Miss at Texas A&M (SEC)