It was an emotional day at Kroger Field. The day saw a loaded senior class play their final game in Lexington and Josh Paschal make his long-awaited return from malignant melanoma.
On the field, the Wildcats finally got back on track with a 34-23 win over Middle Tennessee State.
The defense struggled at times for a third straight week, but the offense played better as It was the first time Kentucky scored more than 20 points since their 24-10 win over South Carolina back on September 29th. Though it is worth noting that one of those scores came off a pick-six from Mike Edwards, while another touchdown came on a short field after Edwards forced a fumble, so the offensive issues are far from being solved.
After the game, head coach Mark Stoops actually had a great explanation as to why Kentucky hasn’t looked the same recently as they did earlier in the year.
“We’re not a very good football team when we’re satisfied.”
Recently, it’s been clear Kentucky hasn’t had the same fire as they did when they beat a top-15 Florida team in their own building earlier this season, then hammered a top-25 Mississippi State team at home.
Kentucky was playing hungry then. Lately, they don’t have that same hunger, and it’s been showing on the field. Hopefully, they’re able to find enough motivation to put on a show at Louisville next week.
As for today, junior running back Benny Snell Jr. led the way with 115 yards and two touchdowns in what may have been his final game at Kroger Field if he chooses to head to the NFL a year early.
As for some of the seniors:
Josh Allen broke Kentucky’s program sack record with a crucial fourth-quarter sack that all but ended any Middle Tennessee comeback hopes.
Edwards put on a show in his final home game as a Wildcat with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown and forced a fumble.
Lastly, C.J. Conrad had his biggest game of the season with 51 yards and a touchdown.
Here’s what head coach Mark Stoops had to say after clinching the program’s first eight-win season in over a decade, courtesy of UK Athletics:
MARK STOOPS: Obviously very pleased to get the eight victory of the season. Definitely not easy. We knew that going into it. Got a lot of respect for Middle Tennessee and Coach Stockstill and his son and Tony Franklin, the offensive coordinator. They do a really good job and we knew it was going to be a tough, hard fought game. They kind of beat us at our own game, kept the ball, possessed the ball the entire game and it really kind of got a little aggravating. We had some big stops that were critical that we needed, but it really limited possessions for our offense. It really felt like our offense was, you look at the overall numbers and you’re wondering, but the possessions were very low. The first, I think the third quarter, looked up there and we had one possession for a touchdown and they had a possession for a touchdown. There was four minutes left before the second possession of the third quarter. And I thought the possession to start the second half was huge by our offense and just like they did to start the game.
So hard fought victory, 8th victory. When you’re doing things that haven’t been done in 34 years or whatever it is, it’s not meant to be easy, it’s not easy. I have great, great appreciation for this team, but especially this senior group. The way they stepped up again tonight and the way they played and what they have done for this program. There’s some very good players there and greatly appreciate their effort and their leadership and what they have done and you saw it there today.
We need to play better. We really, frustrating really, mostly defensively, just frustrated with the way our position on the ball and leveraging the ball and some of that. And, again, give them credit. There was a ton of deception in there in getting us on our heels a little bit and eye violating a little bit and not playing as good as we can on the perimeter. And so we got to get some things cleaned up. There will be a lot to look at and improve on from this game.
Q. What does it mean to you and the players to see Josh back out there again today?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it was, it meant an awful lot to us. You guys know from my, from covering me every day and I’ve been telling you the truth, that he has been working his way in there the last two, three weeks. And I don’t know what he just said to you now, but he was trying to come back a few weeks ago and just the foot was bothering him and in different, from where he had the surgery. And that really disappointed him because he was ready to go a few weeks ago, trying to get back for the Georgia game, I want to say, and just wasn’t ready. And we certainly wouldn’t put him out there until he’s ready to go. We played him at a spot because we were really thin at the outside backer, extremely thin there this week, and so we played him there because it was really a comfort zone for him. It’s a little bit -- he played there all year. And to put him back inside where he had never done that before would have been a little bit tough on him, and we needed the help at Jack, so it worked out good. And we gave him the start just because we thought it was right and it was good and it was inspiring to the team and fun and we got off to a really good start with the two turnovers there defensively. And then I just thought we lingered around there a bit after that.
Q. When you say that we need to get some things cleaned up, what in your mind is mostly what you need to be cleaned up?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I just thought we were sloppy on the perimeter. When in basic football, when you leverage the football, tackle the football, stay off cuts, there was some aggravating yards out there that, those are things that we need to do a better job of fundamentally, and just position on the football and little things like that. And, again, it was a, it was a good job by them and they controlled the clock and limited our offense. You look at the drive chart there and in the first half we had one possession where we didn’t score. And in the second half there again, really only four possessions in the second half. The kneel down on the fifth. So that’s a defense and we got to do a better job.
Q. Was it a difficult decision to not suspend Tymere today?
MARK STOOPS: No, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Tymere and I talked about it and I actually gave him an option on a couple games.
Q. Do you expect Mike Edwards to come out and have not only a game, but even a first quarter like he did on senior day?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me with Mike. If you look at him and as I’m out there giving those guys a hug and saying goodbye for their last game here at home, there’s some real players there and guys that have contributed quite a bit and what about Mike? I mean, he is just absolutely consistent for years. One of the better players in the league. Just really consistent player. He’s been very reliable.
Q. I assume their game plan was partially to negate Josh Allen?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah.
Q. Have you ever had a defensive player have a better season than he’s had?
MARK STOOPS: I can’t say that I have. I’ve had a Thorpe winner and a couple runners-up and been in the Thorpe several times. But just the way he impacts the game being a big guy, he’s really remarkable. And he’s so unselfish. You see players so often in situations like that and he won’t blink an eye if we’re not rushing him. And the way their run game was we were stacking them some and couldn’t get him coming off the edges as much as we would like to. It was even aggravating to me. I was like, hey, let’s get Josh going here. But he’s just, he doesn’t even think about it. If he gets, when he gets his opportunities, he’s going to go. And he wanted the record, but not at the expense of our defense and what we’re doing and game planning.
Q. What have these guys meant to the future of your program, the seniors?
MARK STOOPS: What have they meant to the future? Well, they have just set such a great example for our younger players because of their work ethic, so many things. But they have been leaders, they have been, they have had a great work ethic. They have been very unselfish and really about the team and far from perfect, but they have really, they really have great hearts and their minds are in the right place and they really want to lead and set a great example and set the precedent for the future.
Q. How nice was it to finally get a little breathing room early in the game? You were up 14-0 and then 24-7 and things like that?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it was good. And then it really was and unfortunately we got to just play better defensively. When we get the score to go up 21 to start the second half, and then we give up a long drive. And then even at the end we have them stopped again and get the penalty and just silly things. But it was good. And we just got to get the offense more opportunities because we just felt like that was just too much, too many possessions -- or too much time of possession for us, the defense on the field. Just we got to get off the field.
Q. You had a pretty successful year. You still don’t seem fully satisfied. What would it take to satisfy you to finish out the rest of the year strong?
MARK STOOPS: Well, we go one more regular season game and that’s extremely important and that’s what I just told the team. And I told the seniors how much I appreciate them and go enjoy the night with their families. They all have family and people in town and they get to go spend some quality time with them. But we, we’re not a very good football team when we’re satisfied. We have a big game left and so we got to finish this season strong and that’s what I told them. Enjoy the night and let’s get back with the right mindset. I thought they did that this week. They came back with a great energy and attitude and really had some good practices and we can play better.
Q. I know Benny’s not a senior, but he may be in the same position as some guys who decided to come back this year. I assume you will sit down with him at the end of the year and talk about his future?
MARK STOOPS: I will. But I think that position and what he’s done is totally different from some of the other guys. And I’ll let Benny make that announcement at the appropriate time and what he decides to do. But that position is clearly different and what he’s done, and the upside, he stands some to lose by coming back where other guys, they all gained by coming back. That position’s really different. You have to look at it differently, so, you know. I don’t think it will be a long conversation.
But I don’t want to steal his thunder, you know what I mean?
Q. You talked about winning the conference, another hundred yard game for him today, he’s kind of impressive what he’s done. How important was he today?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it is, it’s impressive. I think Mike, people were telling me Mike Edwards was in the 300 club for tackling, second defensive back and Josh Allen broke the sack record and I think C.J.’s very close on tight ends and touchdowns and Benny, of course -- I’m not sure how far he is from the all-time record, but I think it’s important, how far is he?
MARK STOOPS: He needs 207 more?
MARK STOOPS: Well we better get going. But he’s got two games and you know, just he’s meant an awful lot to us. I do look at him a lot like I do the senior class, just because he’s been so solid, he’s been productive for three straight years and really has meant a lot to us.
Q. You mentioned that Kentucky hasn’t won eight games in a regular season since 1984. What does it mean to you personally to get to that mark?
MARK STOOPS: You know, it’s important. I think that human nature I’m just like the fans, I’m mad about the ones that we let get away. I want to continue to work and we’re not going to sit at the table of success very long, we’re not very good when we do that as a team. We can’t, we just can’t stay satisfied and our team doesn’t play good that way and we need to have an edge about us here this week. And we got to go play a rival and they’re not having a great season, but they have nothing to lose and I’m sure they’re going to play very, very tough and hard against us. So we need to just kind of get our sights on that.
Q. Do you think your team’s come to grips with being the hunted rather than the hunter?
MARK STOOPS: I said that and I think it’s true. We’re better when we’re the hunters. So we, I thought we responded today to a team that, you know, we were better than, but we know how well they’re coached, we know how much pride they have and any team that’s sitting at the top of their conference is a good football team. So it felt like our guys did, we started good and -- but again I just think there’s so many things we can do better. And I’m really most frustrated defensively to be honest with you. Offensively I thought we, again, we had some things set up, we got to get the ball -- we had some opportunities down the field and we want to continue to do that, get the ball down the field and create some big plays, but we certainly came out and were physical and I don’t know what the rush yards were but again when we rush for 203 to 99 for them and again you’re going to win football games when you do that. You’ve seen us on the wrong end of that and you’ve seen us on the right end of that. And it’s a very important statistic.
Q. Was there a conceded effort to try to get it to C.J. a little bit today?
MARK STOOPS: Well, we always do. We always do. Everybody always wants to say but some of our RPO’s are there sometimes and sometimes they’re not. And when we’re playing these SEC teams, they’re not going to give him those. They’re not giving him any freebies. There was some good reads today by Terry and there was some, there was an effort by us on some to draw the player in and him on a RPO and we had some opportunities there. Today our offensive coaches did a nice job at half in adjusting the route. The one early in the first half when we were just sticking him, the defensive player made a nice read where he came in on the run and then he saw Terry pull it and he shot right back out. That’s when Terry read it and pulled it back down and ran it. I believe Terry had a good long run on that. But later we adjusted the route so we wouldn’t allow him to play both and we started slipping it in behind him there, running it deeper. And it created some opportunities there in the second half. I think we hit them on that play twice and that was a run, both plays were run/pass options and good reads, good throws.
Q. Terry had a really great scramble almost getting ready to get sacked and threw it to C.J. for great touchdown. Do you think that’s kind of a glimpse of what we’re going to be seeing the next couple years?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I hope so. That possession there I thought was really aggravating to me as well because we had the ball at the six-inch line and get the hold and then get a negative yardage play or a zero yard gain. And then Terry makes a great individual play right there, it was a big play, in a big moment. But those are things that we can’t do. We can’t take a penalty there on the six-inch line.