CRAWFORD | Surfin' SEC: These days, it's good to be Mark Stoops
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Mark Stoops has surfed across the upstretched arms of his University of Kentucky football players in a victorious locker room at Missouri. He has basked in the rays of appreciation from longsuffering Wildcats fans. And now, he’s hoping to ride a wave of momentum past Georgia into the SEC Championship game.
Not that everything is perfect.
Stoops accidentally poked a hole in the visitors’ locker room ceiling when he was up there in Columbia.
“Yeah, I forgot to send that check this morning,” he said Monday. “I was up a little higher than I thought.”
Stoops can well afford it, having earned a $250,000 bonus by reaching seven victories on the season Saturday, plus an additional year on his contract. Meanwhile, his Wildcats have climbed a little higher than a lot of folks can believe – including voters in the weekly polls, who still have them outside of the Top 10 despite their 7-1 record.
Don’t expect Stoops to be worried about that with No. 3-ranked Georgia visiting Kroger Field at 3:30 on Saturday in what is expected to be one of the most charged atmospheres in the facility’s history. ESPN will originate its SEC Nation program from Kroger Field beginning at 10 a.m.
Kentucky is a 10-point underdog, but coming off a game in which they held a Top 25 offense without a first down in the second half, you can pardon anyone from worrying about pointspread.
“The second half, it was a remarkable effort,” Stoops said of his team’s defense at Missouri. “When I look at that drive chart and see 2, 6, 9, minus-6, minus-5, that’s as complete a half as I’ve ever been a part of, against that quality opponent.”
And the defense wasn’t the only group that turned in a sterling effort.
There was Lynn Bowden stepping forward and demanding the ball, not only as a receiver, but late in the game, telling Stoops he was going in to return a punt.
“Lynn has great respect. He was like, ‘Coach,’ and I’m like, ‘Go, go do it, man,’” Stoops said. “What do we have to lose at that point? ‘Go, go do your thing.’ He was like that all day, was very passionate about, ‘Give me the rock, give me the ball, let me do my thing.’ And he was doing it. He was making competitive catches, he was making competitive runs after catch. He wanted it, and like I said, he’s a competitor. At that point, it was nice to see him. He caught that post late in the game at X, like I talked about last week about possibly moving him around a little bit. He was at a different spot, ran under it and made a great catch there. So, no, it was really a no-brainer for me. He didn’t have to twist my arm. He was like, ‘Coach.’ ‘Go, go do it.’ Twelve seconds later he was in the end zone.”
Terry Wilson went 6-of-8 on the final drive, including the game-winning touchdown pass. C.J. Conrad made the catch. You can go down the line, plays that, in retrospect, may well have been pivotal.
Stoops has coached championship teams, including one that won a national championship. I asked him if he had noticed any similarities between this Kentucky team and those teams, and he said that after what happened Saturday night, he has.
“You’ve heard me talk each and every week about how much I love and value this team from the beginning, from the summer,” Stoops said. “That’s the truth. But I also do feel like something changed a bit Saturday: that growth, another step, however you might say it. I don’t know how to put it into words, but I just felt like that truly everybody said that somehow, someway they’re going to do their part to help us win this game. Certainly some guys stepped up a in a really big way, but everybody did. Everybody in there made a difference. I definitely think we evolved another step.”
Now he’s hoping that evolution carries on to preparation for Georgia this week.
Stoops knows how much a win would mean to the program. He knows where it would fit in the history of the program. But he’s hoping whatever that special quality the program experienced on Saturday will sharpen the focus – and confidence – of his players even more.
“It’s a big deal. We don’t shy away from that,” Stoops said. “The changing culture and what you do and that relentless fight. That’s just a relentless fight day in and day out by a lot of people, to put yourself in a position to play in big games. That’s a culmination of six years of extremely hard work by a lot of people. I thank all the people that have been there. The administration, the past coaches, the present coaches, the strength and conditioning people. Most importantly our players, past and current. There’s a lot of people that put a lot into it. The fan base has been so loyal for a long time. That does mean something to me.”
And it could mean even more to the program, with a team that has earned a shot at program history.
As for Stoops, he stands to earn another $250,000 bonus if the Wildcats get to 10 wins. If that happens, he might have a few more surfing sessions -- though he admitted Monday, he's still a bit sore from Saturday's.
"Well, I’m always a little banged up," Stoops said. "I feel like I played after games. I’m getting old and I’m always sore. I really do. I feel like I play. Players always laugh at me. I always see them in there in the training room on Sunday. We’re all in there getting worked on.”
As for the rest of Big Blue Nation? It's feeling no pain.
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