CRAWFORD | Stoops vows UK improvement: 'I promise you ... this is a good football team'
Two days after his team's 44-35 loss to Southern Miss, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops says he still believes he has an improved football team, but it must not revert to bad habits.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I’m pretty well up to date on most sports terms. Even the obscure ones, I’ve usually run across at some point or another. When, after a game at the University of Louisville several years back, Howard Schnellenberger referred to the crucial late moments of a game as “nut-cutting time,” I was well aware of the cattle-industry origins of the phrase.
But University of Kentucky coach Mark Stoops used a new one, at least to me, on Monday.
“When things go wrong, we have guys on there that start rat-trapping and doing some things that are inexcusable,” Stoops told reporters in his regular Monday news conference. “And that’s got to stop. That’s a losing mentality that we will not tolerate and that’s got to change because there are so many people doing so many good things.”
And we’ll get to those good things in a moment, coach, but let’s revisit this “rat trapping.” What the heck is that?
Stoops said the phrase, at least to his knowledge, started with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
“How in the world would I describe that?” Stoops said. “It’s a Jimbo-ism. It’s going back to bad habits. When pressure is on the line you go back to bad habits.”
Stoops saw a lot of that when he looked back at the tape of Kentucky’s 44-35 loss to Southern Miss on Saturday. Basically, in the second half, he saw the entire team, save for a player here and there, revert to the second half of the 2015 season. Or the 2014 season. Or of any recent season.
Stoops spoke for quite a while before taking a single question on Monday, and a good bit of that was devoted to the things Kentucky did right on Saturday night, and there were many. He laid out the case for his belief that this Kentucky team is better than it was a year ago, and enumerated the things he saw.
The team was ready to play. It executed well early. It got pressure on USM quarterback Nick Mullens and picked him off three times in the first half. It stopped the run. Offensively, the Wildcats were sharp. In fact, they might’ve been a little too sharp.
Despite piling up yardage and points, the offense was scoring so quickly that the defense got little break.
“Don’t take this out of context because I always want to score points, but if you look at our offense in the first half we scored touchdowns with two-play drives, so the defense is on the field, on the field, on the field,” Stoops said. “You start three-and-out, five-play missed field goal, then it’s two-play touchdown, two-play touchdown, seven-play touchdown, then there’s another three-and-out in there. We had 10 possessions of under three plays. And so your defense is going to be on the field and we’ve just got to find a way to respond. We’ve just got to do a better job of mixing in our depth and getting some guys in there because that’s a lot of possessions.”
For a variety of reasons, the wheels came off in the second half, on both offense and defense.
The biggest problem facing Stoops’ defense is that you can only condition guys so well. Matt Elam, for example, played around 80 snaps in the game. Ideally, he’d be playing closer to 35 and splitting time with someone. Courtney Love played pretty close to all 95 defensive snaps. Despite being in his fourth season, Stoops finds himself without enough experienced bodies on defense. He says he’s going to have to develop some young players to the point where he can trust them in big games. But until then, something has to give.
Once Southern Miss got the Kentucky defense winded, it controlled the game. It limited Kentucky to 14 offensive plays in the second half.
After a fantastic first half, Drew Barker didn’t have much chance to get himself on track in the second. He lost two fumbles on sacks. He threw an ill-advised deep ball for an interception. He’s a young quarterback, and he got impatient. It happens.
But that’s the kind of thing Stoops is talking about. He has to get guys to quit reverting to bad habits. But he’s just as strong in his belief that they now know the right techniques, the right way to play.
“I promise you, as I said all year, this is a good football team,” Stoops said. “They knew what to do. We’ve got to execute. And the thing that we have to do that I have to get coached, is when things go wrong, we have to go back and execute. We talk about that constantly and I’ve got to look at all ways to get that relayed and taught. . . . There’s 10 plays in that game, whether we don’t execute because we’re rat-trapping or we go back to a losing mentality or whatever it is, but that’s got to change. That we will get changed because the vast majority of this football team is much better.
“We’re beyond dealing with fragile mentalities,” Stoops said a bit later. “They’ll be called out and showed in front of everybody the plays that we had the opportunity to make so everyone keeps their confidence and knows things are in place to win the game. And then eventually the players will start making them and we’ll get over the hump. That’s the last thing left to do in this program, is finding that winning attitude, that winning culture and ways to win games instead of losing them.”
UK blew a defensive assignment and gave up a Southern Miss touchdown right before the half. After USM scored to make it 35-24 on its first drive of the second half, UK recovered an onside kick and was inside the Eagles’ 20 in two plays. If the Wildcats drive on in to score there, the whole complexion of the game changes. Instead, Barker is sacked, he fumbles it and Southern Miss returns it to the UK 39.
Two plays, two mistakes, two Southern Miss touchdowns. So often, no matter what the margin, you can point to one stretch, or a play or two, that would’ve made all the difference. For a long time, Kentucky has not made those plays.
At this point, they’re not just game-changing plays, but program-changing plays.
I watched Florida at UMass on Saturday and, in the first half of UK’s game against USM, I thought, “This is a team that has a chance to go down there and win.” Perhaps that’s a crazy thought, given that Florida has won 29 in a row in the series.
And until Kentucky figures out a way to play 60 minutes of solid run defense and, perhaps, shore up its defensive depth, things won’t change.
I still think this is a team that could reach a bowl game. But if the Wildcats start the season 0-2, they’re going to be fighting a discouraged fanbase and some all too familiar negative momentum.
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