LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- Football is an unforgiving sport. Nowhere can they draw up a playbook of that fact better than the University of Kentucky.
The Wildcats have played as tough a schedule as anyone in the nation under first-year coach Mark Stoops, who is undermanned and, by all accounts, doing about everything a coach could do to lay a solid foundation under his rebuilding job.
He's had injured quarterbacks and the usual plethora of problems that beset coaches in Lexington, but you figured a visit from Football Championship Subdivision member Alabama State would put all that on hold for a week.
Then wideout Javess Blue gets hit in the eye with a football before the game and can't play. And freshman wideout Alex Montgomery, after catching a touchdown pass that put the Wildcats up 21-7 in the second quarter, jumps up to chest-bump a teammate and injures his left knee, perhaps seriously. He came back from the locker room on crutches.
If there are football gods up there, I'm just going to say it: You are sick individuals.
UK came away with a 48-14 victory before a homecoming crowd of 53,797 in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday night. But Stoops wasn't overly celebratory -- and not just because he wanted to hustle to finish his postgame news conference before midnight. When asked if the win would be celebrated, he didn't even have the energy to be politically correct.
"I don't think so," he said. "It's a little late right now, isn't it? That game felt like it went forever. I mean, so, yeah."
Survive and advance, but don't exactly celebrate. He was still exasperated from two celebration injuries, and a sprained ankle for freshman receiver Ryan Timmons.
"Yeah, I'm better off just staying away from commenting on that, but it's frustrating, that's for sure," Stoops said. "Yeah, we lose Javess in pregame. He was just out there throwing it around like the guys do, getting out there, getting loose, and just took a ball right in the eye. So that closed up and he couldn't see out of it. Then I popped him in the other eye; he couldn't see out of that one (laughing). So he had two black eyes.
"No, you guys are going to put that in print and people are going to start arresting me. You know I'm joking. Then with Alex, that was really disappointing with Alex, and we'll see. Hopefully, it's not serious, but I'm afraid it may be because he's been solid all year and getting better for a young guy. To get that touchdown, we've got to learn to celebrate better."
Stoops came to UK knowing he would need to teach many things. How to tackle, practice, prepare -- all of the usual stuff. I don't know that he realized he'd need to teach the Wildcats to celebrate. At least, however, UK had a reason. Those have been few and far between this season. When the Wildcats went up 7-0, it was their first lead in a game since Sept. 7.
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow played through some soreness and had one of his best games as a Wildcat. He got off to a good start with an 88-yard TD run, and wound up with 186 yards passing and 101 rushing.
The TD was the longest run in the history of Commonwealth Stadium and the longest run in the Southeastern Conference this season. It also was the second-longest run in UK history and the longest by a quarterback.
"It was the longest touchdown I've ever run since little league," Whitlow said. "I had that week where I didn't practice much so I ran out of gas. I'm thankful for Demarco [Robinson] (for making some key blocks). I need to go give him a hug."
And as long as Whitlow stays healthy, the QB job belongs to him, Stoops said.
"It's his job right now, so we need him to continue to improve," Stoops said. "His reads and his progressions and there were some things out there and some plays out there, and they were in his progression. Those are things we have to get better at. That's why we're not throwing the ball as well as we can right now. So if it's him on the progression one play and then somebody else busting an assignment on the next or not running the route right, it's just a variety of issues that we need to get better at."
The Wildcats will go back to work this week -- minus celebration -- to prepare for a bit of a surprise SEC frontrunner in Missouri. Things won't get any easier. But Stoops continues to teach.
"I'm not trying to be ‑‑ believe me, we know any win is a win. I'll take one more than anything, but it just feels like we have a lot of work to do," he said. "It feels like we're still just not executing the way we can, and that's frustrating."