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Mark Stoops previews Vanderbilt

Time to bounce back and finish strong.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are back on the road this week as they travel to Nashville to face Vanderbilt.

Sitting at 4-5, Kentucky needs two more wins to become bowl eligible, putting significant importance on this matchup. Not to mention if the Wildcats lose, they’ll finish dead last in the SEC East one year after finishing second, which would be a major step backwards after building so much momentum over the last year.

Ahead of the game, head coach Mark Stoops met with the media Monday to preview Cats vs. Dores. Here’s a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics:

Opening Statement …

“I do want to acknowledge and thank all the veterans past and present around the world for what they do for us and what they do for our freedom and our country. We do greatly appreciate them here at the University of Kentucky and I certainly do. So, thank you for your service. As I mentioned after the game, just an extremely difficult game and extremely difficult outcome. Very proud of the way our team played and competed across the board. Really did some very good things to put us in a position to win. As a I mentioned afterwards, it is not some coaching cliché or ways for you guys to pounce on me about it, but we have to find a way to get those yards … inches, yards plays. (In) Critical moments, we have to find ways to execute and to make those plays happen. Right now, the way we are playing the margin for error is extremely small but we are playing extremely hard. Guys are doing a lot of good things, it gets down to a few plays. If you look at our league, there are probably six teams with a better record than us and then everybody s lumped in there from seven to 14, it is extremely competitive and extremely close and there are plays here and plays there for all of us. We are all trying to make those plays and win these close games. This is at least the second time this year where I come in here and we are talking about a play here and a play there. That is our job to find that, our job to do it. Felt like our guys, again, competed extremely well and we had an opportunity to win in a game like that. It was weird in the sense that we had nine possessions in the game, that is all the offensive possessions we had was nine. You look at some of those possessions and they were remarkable. Of course, the start of the game with a 17-play drive and then a quick explosive play after the blocked punt and you get a two-play drive. But after that, you are talking about seven possessions the rest of the game and the last three ended on downs. That is the key, as we all know, that comes down to winning and losing, converting one of those at the end. That is compounded by a missed extra point again, or it is different. It is different in maybe possession seven and eight in how you are moving the ball to get a field goal if nothing else and then at the end of the game to get a field goal to tie. We have to get that fixed. I don’t have an answer for that other than to continue to work with the kickers that we have and build their confidence and get them better. I know they can do it. There is a lot of good and a lot of things we need to get cleaned up and improve on.”

On how you evaluate the current status of the offense …

“Yeah, it gets difficult, it really does. We kicked that around every week and as you know, you watch our games, every play, every possession is critical. Even whether you throw it or run it. We have a lot of explosive runs in that game. If you throw an incomplete pass and you’re behind the chains, it gets tough, that balance. We are confident in Lynn’s throwing ability. I will say this, Tennessee is a good matchup with us right now because they are stout up front, as I mentioned going into the game, and they have been covering very well. They have been creating a lot of interceptions. Their back end has been playing well. I felt like even when you look at possession eight when we were stopped on downs, we had a shot there for a huge play and potential touchdown or big gainer and we miss it by a little bit. Every week we look at the best opportunity to win and you look at a big portion of that game and you just look at the drive chart, it frustrated or baffles all of us in how you lose a game like that. But you look at the possessions and where we went, we had one three-and-out all day. We had one three-and-out all day and that’s the first possession of the second half. After that we only had three more drives. We drive it for nine plays, ends on downs. We drive it for another nine plays starting from our own five-yard line and goes all the way into Tennessee territory again and overcome a holding call that was essentially a 22-yard swing and end on downs again there. Then the last drive, you take it 12 plays and end up on the 2-yard line. So, that’s tough to answer, right? Put yourself in these shoes, because that is a lot of good against a good defensive team. It is just a matter of finding some explosive plays. But it is a balance and something to thing about. It is hard when you only have nine possessions in a game, it is a lot easier after the fact to say, ‘Hey, give Sawyer (Smith) three series.’ But every play and every series is so important and again with Lynn (Bowden) we have been very effective and we’ve been moving the football.”

On how hard is it when you’re essentially running a wishbone, to then put a passing quarterback in the game ...

“It is hard. However, we do work on our base offense all week and Lynn (Bowden, Jr.) does it as well. So, if Lynn is not at quarterback, all of our payers and the route running and everything is still there. A lot of the core of our offense is still there. Now, some of the unique plays built for Lynn are totally new.”

On timing …

“It is hard. There’s no question. There’s no doubt about it. You have to continue to build to your strengths and what you feel give you the best opportunity to win.”

On the thin margin of error affecting how defensively the team plays …

“No, I don’t really think it does. Defensively, we’re really trying to stop them every time. Defensively, it was equally as frustrating because I felt like we played extremely well in so many cases. The frustration comes in on a certain amount of plays that really dictate the outcome of the game. I think they had eleven …”

On if there was any theme to Tennessee converting three third downs on their first scoring drive

“We blitzed and played man, they beat us. We played zone, they beat us. They scrambled for one of them, if not mistaken, we didn’t execute the game up front. We run the game up front correctly, I don’t believe he scrambles for the first-down on one of them. A few plays here and there, but when you look at the defense I want to say, what was it 11 carries by the running backs for 37 yards? That’s pretty good. You go into the game and you tell me beforehand that’s going to be the case, that’s pretty effective. The quarterback got out on a critical third down. He got out on a third-and-long that gave them better field position on the first field goal. We were playing back right there because we didn’t want to give them a one-on-one, that they ended up winning later. With those wideouts, that’s the last thing you want to do in that situation on a third-and-extra long is give up a jump ball to one of those dudes that can come down with it. We saw that, and again, we said that going into the game. You heard me talking about it. That was going to be a critical point in the game, the 50-50 balls of handling their wideouts. To me, that was the difference. We played extremely well defensively. We gave up some 50-50 balls, but they got every one of them. That’s obviously was their points.”

On if it is tough to prepare for 50-50 balls when you go into a game with your quarterbacks and your top two 50-50 receivers (Ahmad Wagner and Bryce Oliver) injured?

“I was going to use a word that I probably shouldn’t (laugher), I’ll get quoted on it. I’m going to use a different S-word. It stinks.”

On what he knows about Vanderbilt…

“Vandy is a team that you know they are going to play extremely hard, you know they are going to be well-coached, and I know Coach (Derek) Mason is going through a hard time right now, and again, just like all of us in the league, there’s no mercy, look around the league, its hard on all of us. But you know they are going to be well-coached, tremendous running back in (Ke’Shawn) Vaughn very much build an offense around him. He can hurt you running the ball and also in receiving, you’ve seen him make some extremely explosive plays in the screen game, talented tight end and wide receiver. They are going to play extremely hard and look what they did, I think they shocked everybody a few weeks back when Missouri was rolling, and rolling darn good, and Vandy goes in there and plays exceptionally well, so its every week. You better concentrate on yourself and get ready to play, because you expect a very hard fought game from them.”

On the comparisons of the defensive matchups between Kentucky and Vanderbilt…

“You know it’s about us, it’s about execution and doing these little things. You’ve seen the games, it’s not lip service, it comes down to several plays in every game whether you make them or not. Even if you go back to the Missouri game you really feel like we pulled away from that game, but it really comes back to a couple of big plays that got to that point, that was able to stretch it out a little bit, so you always have to expect to be prepared for a tight game and to make the plays when it matters, so I expect nothing else than a hard fought game, I know Derek (Mason, Vanderbilt Head Coach) and his pride, the pride in that program and I know him he’s going to coach extremely hard and have them ready to play, expect nothing less going in there.”

On the importance of the week…

“Every game, to us, we feel like is extremely important and so no different in that regard. We felt the urgency last week and again I can’t fault our players, I really appreciate their preparation and their attitude and the way they went about it. We all have to work together to pick ourselves up and go back at it, you all probably get tired of hearing me say that but look around and listen to a little bit of the news last night and other games or pro teams and hear those pro coaches say the same things, I mean, what are you going to do? Those poor guys, they have to play what, 18 games, that’s rough you know, it’s tough.”

On if Lynn Bowden is confident in his throwing ability, and the fine line between throwing the ball and taking off on scrambles…

“It’s a tough balance there, truthfully, because Lynn really does have confidence in his throwing ability and wants to throw it, and probably at times wants to keep them more off balance and we do as well. You know you watch that game, and part of it, they (Tennessee) didn’t necessarily play a lot like Missouri, where they (Missouri) just completely loaded the box. As I told you against Missouri I felt like there were definitely pass plays there, the weather dictated it and we were creating some explosive plays in the run game, so we didn’t have to go to it as much, by the way they were playing. Tennessee didn’t go to that extreme, they mixed it in and did a nice job, but again we created very explosive run plays, but they didn’t just wholesale put everybody up there to give us a greater opportunity to throw the ball. So, you have to see how teams play you, because those guys have been covering good. A couple of those where we had some pass plays, it wasn’t like he had really free throws and there’s times where that takes a rhythm, it takes timing and it takes proper reads on the side. He does a lot of things good, we just have to try and put him in the best position we can and predictable pass is not the best situation to be in. I will say that’s where we’ve done a really good job of keeping people off balance, when we are in third-and-medium. I want to say in this game, was it two or three, at least three third-and-longs, or two third-and-longs and at least one third-and-medium, keeping them off-balance in the run game, keep converting them, so at least with the threat of throwing them it keeps them off-balance there, so at least we are keeping them honest in that regard.”

On Jordan Griffin comments regarding some miscommunications during the game…

“I can’t really explain which one he’s talking about because there were some communication things that we were on his butt about during the game but not on the 50-50 balls. And the 50-50 balls, he knew what was coming, he was lined up perfect, played it exceptionally well. He actually backed up, played outside, he knew exactly what play was coming. He was perfect in his thought and Coach Clink (Steve Clinkscale) had him ready for it. It was perfect, he just missed the play. And the one on (Brandin) Echols, I have to tip my cap to them. That throw and catch, the one that they initially ruled out (of bounds), but then came in, that was a hard play to defend right there. Where that ball was thrown and the way he came in with that, was an extremely nice play. That’s two off the top of my head I was thinking of. And then Jamari (Brown), I felt like he needs to be more confident. We need to work on him. There was a couple he had, we need to contest those further coming down. So, there’s zero communication on that. It’s a matter of playing the ball and playing it to the ground. That’s four that there was zero communication errors. But, he might have been thinking about other things he was thinking about during the game.”

On if receivers Bryce Oliver and Ahmad Wagner, will be back this week…

“I hope both of them are back this week. We’ll see. I was told that both of them were close. Both of them were better today, so hopefully they’ll be out there.”

On being one-dimensional and being hesitant in playing Sawyer Smith

“I don’t recall exactly if I phrased it exactly as you did right there, but as I’ve mentioned if you go through that game and you really study it and watch it and you look at the drives and the efficiency that we did have. It was extremely good. Now, with that being said, understanding that we have to cap off a few plays. But getting to that point, the efficiency was pretty darn good. So that is a tough balance right there. It’s a fair question and it’s hard to do. Put it like this, the last three drives – nine plays, nine plays, 12 plays. You get that one in, and I do that, (then it’s) something different, and you’re sitting here calling me a compete idiot, right (laughter)? You get that last two yards, what are y’all saying? Really, think about it? What would say to me then (laughing)?”

On fans worried last week about him heading to Florida State and then being critical after Saturday’s loss …

“As I said last week, I guess it’s better than the alternative, right (laughter)? See, I never get too far in front of my skis. Trust me, let’s worry about Vandy and that’s all my concentration is. Our team was ready, and we’ll get ‘em ready again, and that’s all it is. But yeah, you’re right. That’s the nature of this job. One week they love and the next week they’re trying to run you out of here. I am very thankful for the job I have.”

On his words to recruits after a tough loss…

“I was so encouraged by the recruiting aspect of it. There were guys texting me afterwards, ‘til late in the evening, picking me up and I was like, ‘I can’t tell you how much that means to me, I needed a little pick up right now.’ And guys were really encouraged and this is a special group. It’s a tight group. I think their unity within the commits is affecting guys that are on the fringe. I think we have a chance to put a special class together.”

On players that played well in the game versus Tennessee…

“In general, you always look at Lynn, the way that he plays and the heart and the soul that he plays with. You know it is remarkable. I thought our defensive line played very well. There were times in that game where we did have the opportunity to double some wideouts and play with an extra guy to the pass game because of the threat they had. If you’re doing that, you have to be able to handle things up front. I really felt like across the board, the guys up front really had a great control of the line of scrimmage. So, that was very helpful.”

On linebacker Marquez Bembry being dressed up for the first time this season…

“He’s working his way back in there, he really is. He’s been practicing a couple weeks, we’re close to getting him into a game. He’s getting there, his knee seems stronger and stronger each and every week. We’ve actually explored, because of the need, it feels like we have some good depth outside and we need some help inside. We’ve actually been repping him a lot inside, that can help us in the future for next year. You’re talking about a big guy, big, strong guy that can move in there. That’s something we’ve been working on a few weeks.”

On the crucial 3rd and 1 play with Chris Rodriguez Jr…

“It was a close play. They ended up, one of their overhang players, they brought him, and so our puller had to take him, or else they were going to hit him in the backfield, which left a 1-on-1 with the linebacker, and they made the play. It was hard on Chris because normally we expect him to get that yard with a profile run, near leg and near shoulder, and run him over, get him sideways, but the way he saw it kind of late, he squared him up, made a good goal line tackle there. If Chris has a little better vision, he could get him a little bit more on his side and get that yard or jump. It just wasn’t clean. It’s not on Chris, they made a nice play.”

On Chris being compared to Benny Snell

“I think Chris is one of those guys that you see him getting those very tough yards. I think each of our backs have been very productive and given us a lot and given us explosive plays. I’m not jabbing at anybody, but early in the year it’s like, ‘Why aren’t you playing this guy,’ or ‘Why aren’t you playing that guy,’ it’s like every game it could be this back (or another). All three of them have given us explosive plays and have looked very dynamic at times. They are all deserving of the reps they’re getting, they’ve all done some really good things.”

On changing the running back rotation for this game or going with the hot hand…

“We may look at some of that. At this point, it’s probably more fans and the media make more of that than we do because during the game, you don’t know where those explosive runs are going to play. You have to realize, there are a lot of things that are RPOs (run-pass option) on that as well, where he’s handing it off. There were times we had some throws in there as well. With RPOs, Lynn again, just looking at it, once he looks at it on film, I could have thrown this one, he had a few options there, to throw a little bit more.”

On running backs being better at different things on different plays or is it whatever the defense gives you…

“I think that’s fair to say to some extent. But overall, no. You’re splitting hairs. Maybe some guys’ better at a gap scheme, maybe he’s reading things better, hitting it tighter, trusting it, than others. But in general you’re splitting hairs there.”

On Lynn Bowden’s growth..

“That’s really encouraging to see from him. It doesn’t surprise he. He has grown so much. It’s fun to see, it really is, because every player is different. The way they handle things is different, the way they were brought up is different, they’re all different, it’s good. It’s good because he and I, as we go through the ups and downs of the years, there’s times where he can pull himself back much quicker and if he’s having a tough day, tough play, he is a true competitor and handles himself much more professionally, and that’s what I tell hi., I give it to to him, saying you’re better than that, you’re above that now and he has handled things much better. I am very proud of him in that way and the growth that has been made.”

On playing true freshmen on offense down the stretch of the season…

“It’s hard to just throw them in there, just sheer speed or ability. With us and the explosiveness and balance as we were talking about in the past game and the fair questions on whether to go with Sawyer (Smith) or not, it does get hard to what you evolve to, what you morph to, and that is part of it as coaches, to put them in the best position you can. I understand frustration. We are a much different football team right now than we were in game one or game two. As I said earlier, I have to give credit. I know the easiest target in the world outside of me is the offensive coordinator. You’ve got a bullseye on your chest every day, every play. I can promise you, they’ve worked their tail off putting guys in position to be successful and we have had to morph into what we are doing, but that is where a seasoned veteran helps you immensely. I know we are not perfect and I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but I have to recognize those guys and the job that they are doing, putting guys in position, but we are different right now than what we were with Terry (Wilson) and with Sawyer (Smith). Look at the first three games and look at us now and we have had to what we had to do to try to win games. Again, we are not perfect, and we’ve got to find a way, that’s not some coaching cliché, we are close. A play here, a play there against some very good teams, but I can promise you they are all battling.”

On the importance of having fans at the game Saturday…

“It’s very important to have our fans there. I think that our fans like going to Nashville, it’s close, they can drive, much of the state is very close to getting to that stadium. So, hopefully we will have a lot of fans there. I know our players love seeing their family and their friends, and the Big Blue Nation and we hear them. We played well the last time we were in there and hopefully we will go and play good this year, this week. I am going to change things just slightly from our Friday routine as far as leaving a little earlier, getting down there. We are going to go to the Titans’ indoor facility and have a brief workout once we get there on Friday to try to just not have the monotony of a long bus ride, getting off there and going to the hotel. We are going to leave earlier, go there, grab a quick lunch, have some meetings, go have a quick workout and come back. Hopefully that will change some things up because I wasn’t pleased with the last time that I drove to Tennessee. Hopefully that’ll help.”

On seeing Josh Allen and Lonnie Johnson at the game Saturday…

“Always good, always great to see those guys with a big smile on their face. I’m so proud of them and all of our ex-players. I just ran into Jordan Jones a few minutes ago, I always like seeing our players.”