Mark Stoops wants to see more toughness from his Wildcats.
Speaking at his weekly Monday press luncheon, the Kentucky head coach said he liked the effort he saw last Thursday in a hard-fought 28-22 loss at Mississippi State, but he isn’t always seeing the kind of toughness – both mental and physical – that is required to get the UK program on the winning track.
Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC) is riding a five-game losing streak into this week’s non-conference Homecoming matchup with Alabama State.
“After going back and watching the Mississippi State game, I thought we did some very good things in that game, gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game,” Stoops said. “I felt like our players competed extremely hard. We need to be a smarter football team. We're not very smart at times, and we need to execute in critical situations.”
The Wildcats had several mental lapses in Starkville that hurt their chances of ending an SEC losing skid which now stands at 12. A blown coverage on Mississippi State’s first possession yielded a 60-yard touchdown pass. Failure to recognize where the first-down marker was cost the offense a first down that would have kept the chains moving on a drive that ended without points. Another breakdown in pass defense allowed a key third-down conversion late in the game. But the most glaring self-inflicted wound occurred when Daron Blaylock was caught offside during a successful onside kick after UK had trimmed the Bulldogs’ lead to 21-19 in the third quarter and had a wealth of momentum behind it.
It was a mental error that had Stoops steaming all weekend.
“I thought we gave ourselves another opportunity to win the game last week with a special teams play,” he said. “Coach Peev (Bradley Dale Peveto) had it set up; he worked it all week. It's a game changer, and we're 6 inches offsides, for no reason. I addressed it personally on Thursday and Friday. That's not very smart.
“We need to execute better and we need to play smarter. Those are things we can control. And that's what's so frustrating… We've got to make our players and hold our players accountable to what they do.”
Stoops acknowledged that being mentally tough can be difficult when most of the players in the program have not experienced much winning during their time at UK.
“The fact that we're losing games and have been a part of a losing culture does rub off on you, and that's where we've got to do a better job, and I've got to do a better job to get them to understand and believe that we can do better and there's things we can control,” he said.
“I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC. You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you're under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface.”
The good news, Stoops added, was that he can see how much the mistakes bother his players.
“The more you invest, the more it should hurt, and I think our team is starting to hurt,” he said. “They're starting to understand that we can do this. If we, again, just do some things better, control the things we can control, and execute in some critical situations. I think they see us again, they see us looking like an SEC football team at times. We're just not consistent.”
The UK boss is also challenging his players to display more toughness when it comes to overcoming physical pain. He pointed to performances by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, who both played through injuries last weekend to lead their teams to victory.
“People rally around that,” Stoops said.
Stoops was careful not to indict any specific player when asked if the comments were directed toward UK’s banged-up quarterback situation.
“You know, that's a fine line,” he said. “I don't ever tell players (whether they are healthy enough to play) – that's the medical people's decision. But if somebody is sore, then yeah, I'm going to challenge them… We have to learn to differentiate between being injured and just being a little bit banged up. That's for the players and for the trainers to decide. But if they can go, they need to go.”
Stoops praised players like Jason Hatcher, Blake McClain, Bud Dupree and Ashely Lowery, who have all played through less-than-ideal health this season on the UK defense.
Dupree overcame lingering ankle issues to record a game-high 13 tackles against Mississippi State.
“Bud is not 100 percent,” Stoops said. “Bud goes out and has 13 tackles, plays his tail off, gives unbelievable effort, unbelievable leadership. We need Bud out there, and Bud showed me that. He's not feeling great, and went out and played one of his best games ever. Hopefully that'll get contagious.
“I think that toughness comes from a culture, and we're trying to build it. I don't think we're there yet, but we're going to get there. I can promise you.”