Mark Stoops’ alloted 24 hours of celebration for the Kentucky Wildcats are over. His football team had their time to party following a massive upset victory over No. 14 Mississippi State, but now, the UK head coach says it’s time to turn the focus toward South Carolina.
“After 24 hours after the win, we go right back at it and are focused on USC. We spent a lot of time on them today. There are still so many things we can do better,” Stoops said in his weekly call-in show.
He singled out Mississippi State’s lone touchdown drive of the night, one where the Cats gave up four third-down conversions and a short Nick Fitzgerald touchdown run. On two of those conversions, one being a third-and-five and another a third-and-13, Kentucky gave up passes of 15 and 24 yards for first downs.
“We didn’t play that drive,” he said. “We totally didn’t execute, we gave them that.”
Beyond those seven points, the Wildcats played a near-perfect game on defense, highlighted by star outside linebacker Josh Allen. On the season, the senior has been just about as dominant as you could hope for.
Allen, who was a preseason All-SEC selection and a candidate for the Bednarik and Butkus awards, leads all active SEC players with 17.5 sacks to go along with 26 tackles for loss. He has already managed 25 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, four quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble in his first four games this season.
Against Mississippi State on Saturday, he destroyed the competition, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the process. When you combine the ten yards he racked up in tackles for loss, along with the false starts and holds he forced against MSU, Allen’s play resulted in over 50 negative yards by the Bulldog offense. One of his quarterback hurries also resulted in a thrown interception by Fitzgerald.
“He only got credited with a few hurries, but he was threatening their offense every time it was a predictable pass play,” Stoops said tonight. “There were six pre-snap penalties on guys lined up against him alone. Josh was affecting their quarterback all night long.”
Kentucky’s stud on the other side of the football, Benny Snell, leaped into the Heisman race with a 165-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Bulldogs on Saturday. This evening, Stoops acknowledged just how special he is to the team and defended his superstar back for speaking his mind on social media and in interviews.
“Benny plays for the team,” he said. “He truly cares about his teammates and wants to play really well for them. Benny’s heart is in the right place. He believes in himself, what’s he supposed to say? “I’m not going to run for a ton of yards?” I’d rather say “woah” than “giddy up.”‘
Following the victory, the Cats moved up to No. 17 in the AP and Coaches Polls, with several media outlets raving about their potential as an SEC East sleeper pick. Stoops believes no team is perfect from start to finish throughout the season, though he feels his team is capable of stacking up against any opponent.
“Without a doubt, they deserve to be recognized (in the polls),” he said. “We beat two ranked teams, they’ve played undefeated football. … Through 12 weeks, teams are not going to play at their peak all 12 weeks. The best teams win even when they’re not at their peak, and we’re trying to be that way. We’re deeper, and we do have a more mature team.”
He’s preparing this team to compete in every game, no matter what logo is on the opponent’s helmet. He believes they have a chance to win every time they step onto the football field.
“We compete to win every game we play,” Stoops said. “We strive to compete in every single game. We don’t look at the season and pick a number of wins as our goal for the year. We don’t have goals on there as far as wins and losses. If I say we’re supposed to win ten games, does that mean I expect us to lose two? We’re prepared to win every game we play. I’m proud of the way we prepared, I’m proud of the work we put in throughout the week. It’s hard to describe the kind of stress these players go through, seven days a week. We spend so much time mentally with these players because there’s so much that goes into it.”
A major factor in the victory over MSU had to do with the crowd’s presence at Kroger Field on Saturday. Stoops called out the Big Blue Nation to not only come out in full force against South Carolina, but to top the 60,037 announced attendance from Mississippi State.
“Without a doubt (the fans) made a difference. They affected the outcome of the game,” Stoops said. “Our composure was a big piece of the game last week. With a crowd almost at capacity, it was key for our team to stay composed throughout the game. This Saturday we really need the stadium to be filled again for another big game. …We need it upped again this week.”
Overall, he understands there are some issues to be fixed, but he is proud of how far they’ve come from this summer, to fall camp, to today.
“I was extremely confident in this team because I saw how hard they were working,” he said. “I saw how important this was to them. I’m proud of this team. We have a long way to go, but I’m proud of what we’re doing right now.”