Judging by post-game discussions, the Big Blue Nation is beginning to lose patience with its battered football program. Consistent effort is all well and good, but when are the wins going to happen?
Mark Stoops feels your pain. Probably more acutely than you do. No, make that DEFINITELY more acutely than you do.
If you were watching ESPN’s telecast of the Mississippi State game (and we KNOW you listen to the radio at the same time thankyou), you saw Stoops’ expression reach volcanic proportions during a split screen image.
On one side was the referee, calling offside on the Wildcats, who had just perfectly executed an onsides kick that could have led to UK taking the lead. On the other side of the split image was Stoops, who thought the flag was because of a Bulldog infraction. When he realized it went against his team, wiping out the turnover, Stoops’ head turned beet red. Expletives leapt from his lips (easy to read, weren’t they?). His face looked like a clenched fist.
Things didn’t get much better from there as the Wildcats saw their rally fall short in Starkville. Stoops paced the locker room like a caged Bengal after speaking with the media, waiting to fulfill his commitments for his post-game TV and radio shows and then head for the airport. He wanted out of Mississippi.
Stoops had calmed down considerably, but not completely, by the time he entered the Wildcat Den Monday morning for his weekly gathering with the media. Ordinarily, the UK coach comes to the podium armed with a bottle of water. On this day, it was full-bore caffeine – a large cup of coffee. Perhaps he’d been up all night, studying game video. His first comment reflected his disappointment in what he had seen in the UK-MSU cut-ups.
After watching the game again, Stoops said, he saw some things that he liked. However…
“We need to be a smarter football team,” he said. “We're not very smart at times, and we need to execute in critical situations.”
The Cats have had endless opportunities to do that this season and far too many times, they’ve spit the bit. It happened again against the Bulldogs.
“I talk about that a lot, and it's frustrating,” he said. “Gets a little bit old talking about that. But we need to execute better and we need to play smarter.”
“Play smarter” means execute. He wants his players to carry out assignments, the way they did over and over in practice. Mistakes add up quickly and result in losses – something Kentucky fans know all too well.
For the first time since his team began the losing streak which has reached five games, Stoops made reference to the bad old days – namely, year after year of losing teams in Lexington.
“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,” Stoops said. “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.”
It’s those bad habits that have mired the Cats in a 1-6 season. Most fans didn’t expect the record to be much better at this stage, perhaps one more victory, maybe two. But a 3-4 record would look infinitely better than what they have now. And it would have put them within striking distance of a bowl bid.
Instead, UK fans are wondering if there are any more wins on the schedule – including the Alabama State game this Saturday.
Stoops believes victories are there for the taking, but only if his team can stop beating itself. He can sense the frustration building in his players, who shared their feelings after the loss to the Bulldogs.
“The more you invest, the more it should hurt, and I think our team is starting to hurt,” Stoops 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. They see us looking like an SEC football team at times. We're just not consistent.”
The inconsistency begins, as do the Wildcat woes, at quarterback, where Max Smith has looked nothing like the player he was last year. And Jalen Whitlow right now does not resemble the signal-caller he was at South Carolina, thanks to a sprained ankle and an injured shoulder. As well as the defense has played at times, the Cats have not been able to find the end zone with any regularity.
To that end, Stoops today said Reese Phillips would begin to take reps as the backup QB. Should the freshman be pressed into service, he would forfeit a redshirt for this season. But if Smith keeps struggling and Whitlow can’t get back to 100 percent, Phillips would be the Wildcats’ best shot at any victories (the redshirt apparently will remain on Patrick Towles).
It would be a tall order for a true freshman to come off the bench and lead this team. But you can bet he’d play hard, just like his teammates. Stoops referred to a day prior to the South Carolina game, when he lit up his team for a poor practice. He believes it took.
“There's nowhere to hide,” he said. “And if they do, they'll get called out in front of their team, and I don't see that anymore. I really don't. I see us needing to play smarter and executing better. I see us growing in that regard. So I'm not disappointed. If I was, I would tell you.”
Not disappointed. But antsy. Very, very antsy.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)