Coach Stoops's Debut at UK Spoiled by Loss to Western Kentucky
Little has gone wrong for UK through the first nine months of the Mark Stoops Era.
At least until Saturday’s season opener versus Western Kentucky.
“I felt like we were prepared. I felt like our team did the work,” Stoops said following a 35-26 loss to the Hilltoppers. “As far as the psyche and getting out there and playing, I expected us to play better. It’s my job to get them to play better, and that’s what we plan on doing.”
The Wildcats looked outmatched from the opening kickoff.
Western Kentucky, playing under new head coach Bobby Petrino, immediately marched down the field for a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession. After the first quarter, the Hilltoppers had totaled 176 yards to UK’s 46.
The Cats stayed within four points in the first half, but Western Kentucky held UK off the scoreboard in the third quarter and opened up an 18-point lead with 13:32 remaining in the game.
A late UK rally made the game interesting but the Cats never again held the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
“Obviously didn’t play well enough to win,” said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. “I thought we shot ourselves in the foot.”
Brown was referring to UK’s 10 penalties for 69 yards and the late fumble from freshman wide receiver Ryan Timmons that ended a scoring threat which could have given UK a possession with a chance to tie the game late, but for Stoops there was plenty to be disappointed with.
The UK defense surrendered 487 yards of total offense, including 216 on the ground. Western Kentucky was able to control the line of scrimmage throughout the night despite UK’s defensive line being considered the strength of the team entering the game.
What did the Hilltoppers linemen do to rack up 216 yards on the ground?
“Nothing,” said junior defensive end Bud Dupree. “I just really don’t think we were focused.”
For Stoops and his coaching staff, the loss will send them back to the drawing board in advance of the home opener versus Miami (Ohio).
On major question will center on the quarterback play after Jalen Whitlow started versus Western Kentucky and showed big-play ability with 75 rushing yards but was unable to develop a consistent passing game. Maxwell Smith relieved Whitlow in the fourth quarter and led UK on two scoring drives, throwing for 125 yards and one touchdown.
A second consecutive loss to a in-state Sun Belt Conference foe was not what Stoops or UK fans envisioned for the first game of the new era of UK football, but the Cats’ head coach preached patience following the game.
After one loss, he’s not ready to declare an end to the positive momentum his staff had established.
“We’re all disappointed,” he said. “We all need to do a better job. But if we would’ve won this game, we would go back to work tomorrow the same way. Win or lose, you got to go back, regroup and put a good game plan together, put the work in and just get better. We need to improve. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and I anticipate us doing that.”
Photo: Mark Stoops look at the scoreboard late in UK’s loss to Western Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Hale)