Stoops says only answer for football Wildcats is hard work

Mark Stoops has the answer. At least, part of it. And it involves the words, "hard" and "work," usually in that order.
Trouble is, there are so many questions still out there.
Who is your best quarterback? When is he going to show himself to be just that? What's holding back both of them?
Why, if you want to run 90 plays a game, did you get just 47 against Florida?
If the plan was to involve explosive freshman tailback Jojo Kemp more in the offense, why did he get just three carries Saturday night?
What was behind the defensive breakdowns that helped the Gators sustain drives in their 24-7 victory? Why were they able to convert on third down so many times?
And now, What will it take for a young, inexperienced team to travel to Columbia, take on a South Carolina team still looking for a Southeastern Conference title, and upset the Gamecocks?
Stoops addressed all of these queries, and more, in his weekly Monday gathering with the media. He responded as directly as he could, but as often as not each reply involved a "hard work" motif, including the predictable request for an update on his two-headed quarterback.
Nobody - NOBODY - who watches football likes the two-quarterback system, starting with the QBs themselves. Each believes he should be the fulltime guy. Players say they don't notice, but every quarterback has a different cadence, a different presence, a different type of command in the huddle. It's hard for any signal-caller to come across as the Man in Charge out there if he's always disappearing for various stretches.
Stoops isn't crazy about it. He'd like nothing more than for Jalen Whitlow or Max Smith to force his hand and put a stranglehold on the gig. "Consistency," Stoops said, is what he's looking for and, so far, he hasn't seen enough from either.
"We're in a little bit of a quandary right now," he said. "I think we're going to try to give it to one person, give him the reps and see what he can do. I think we need to do that. It has not been clear-cut at this point. It would be reckless for us to name one guy at this point because nobody has taken the job."
Nobody took it in the spring. Nobody took in the summer. And nobody has taken it here in the fall, four games into the season.
A more consistent quarterback should mean more efficient play offensively, which chould translate to longer (and more) drives resulting in points. The Wildcats, 0-13 in third-down conversions against Louisville, converted just once in the Florida loss (although they did pick up first downs twice on fourth down). Still, that's ONE third-down conversion in the last eight quarters.
More time of possession would mean more opportunities for Kemp to carry the ball, although Stoops said veteran Raymond Sanders played well against the Gators despite his modest rushing numbers. "He ran the ball pretty well, he caught it, he had some key blocks that people underestimate."
And it came against a Gators' defense that was as good as advertised. Florida, whose head coach (like Kentucky's) is a former defensive coordinator, was big, strong, fast and physical. The Cats tried to get to the corners and couldn't. They had limited success running between the tackles, but couldn't move the pile when they absolutely had to.
Their short passing game was effective in spurts, but Florida's defensive backs had enough speed to where they could crowd the Wildcat receivers and limit their room to operate. The deep passing game was all but a disaster, with Smith throwing an end zone interception, as well as taking four sacks. Two came on successive plays, when Gators defensive end Dante Fowler came clean both times, thanks to a couple of communications breakdowns by the Wildcats.
"I've been coaching defense a long time," Stoops said, "and I've never had two 'free' ones and we gave 'em two free sacks. Merry Christmas..." He did manage a wan smile at that point, though he sounded anything but jolly.
Kentucky played Florida much tougher in the second half, which saw the Gators outscore the Wildcats only 3-0. And the visitors didn't start killing clock until their final possession. The UK D had cleaned up some mistakes at intermission, allowing it to at least slow Florida's run game.
"If you can't stop power running teams in this league you got zero chance to win," Stoops said. "You have to, at the core of your team, you have to be able to defend some of that stuff and we're not there yet, but I think we're getting better."
Still, the defense made its share of mistakes, including Stoops, who recalled a third-and-long play on Florida's opening drive, when an all-out blitz by the Wildcats failed.
"The one that crushes me is the third down, the third and long," he said. "They executed. We had been very good on third and long situations, and that was actually my fault. I called the pressure, and it was a complement off some other things we had been doing in the first three games... so it didn't work out. That's on me. Those are the ones that frustrate you."
And now the Cats have to hit the road again. The first time was a trip to Nashville, to a stadium that was supposed to have been a kinder, gentler place than it turned out to be. Western Kentucky pasted the Wildcats in the season opener. Since then, they have improved.
Now, Kentucky heads for Columbia for the SEC opener with a team full of youngsters - either freshmen who've never made a conference road trip, or sophomores who'll be making their first visit to Williams-Brice Stadium. When the Gamecocks are winning, there are few places in the south that are louder.
"It will be a hostile environment that's for sure," said Stoops, "and I think you'll see a team down there we know (is) going to play fast and furious."
He knows the Gamecocks' head coach as well, dating back to Steve Spurrier's days at Florida, where Stoops' brother Bob, as defensive coordinator, helped the Gators win a national championship. He says he's going to enjoy matching wits with The Visor.
"I really like playing guys that I have a lot of respect for," he said. "It's fun. Going to South Carolina and playing Coach Spurrier, you know, it's sleepless nights but it gives you a little fix."
He'll sleep better if his team this week can find itself a regular quarterback, unlock the secret of moving the chains consistently and figure out a way to put pressure on yet another new starting quarterback. Dylan Thompson took over for the injured Conner Shaw and led the 'Cocks to a comeback win over Central Florida last week.
The only answer, Stoops said, is hard work.
"You have to give it everything you got or, again, you have no chance," he said. "I felt like our players worked hard and fought hard. We're by no means perfect. We know there are a lot of things we need to clean up and get better at."
They have just a few days to get ready for the next step in this brutal, four-game slate of Top 15 teams. In the first two they've shown improvement, but they've taken an "L" both times. And there's no "L" in "hard work." But there IS a "W..."

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th year with the UK Radio and TV network. He can be heard nightly Mon-Fri on the "Big Blue Insider" on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)


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