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Mark Stoops talks Mississippi State, injuries and more

On to Mississippi State.

Kentucky v Mississippi State Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

After a tough loss Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats now turn their attention to the Mississippi St. Bulldogs.

Both teams are coming off gut-wrenching one-score losses this past week, so they’ll be looking to rebound with a Week 4 win in Starkville. Kentucky hasn’t won in Starkville since the 2008 season, and the home team has won four straight in this series.

On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops met with media to recap talk Mississippi State, injury updates and more.

Here is a recap of everything Stoops had to say via UK Athletics:

As I mentioned Saturday night, I was very disappointed in the outcome of the game this past week, but so pleased with so many aspects of it and the good things that we did. There were a lot of positives that come from this past game. As I mentioned before, there’s so many plays in a game. We played an awful lot of those plays in this game very good. You never know what plays are going to decide the outcome of a football game. There’s probably four or five or six in that game. If any one of them go our way, you win. There’s a lot of good to take from that. There’s a lot of bad, as well.

Need to continue to work extremely hard to put ourselves in a position to make those plays, to get the outcome that we want.

So we’re excited to get back to work. Next opportunity. We’ll have a different challenge this week going on the road. First time to take this team on the road and go down to Mississippi State for another great challenge.

There’s not a whole heck of a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself. You got to pick yourself back up, get back at it, get ready for your next opponent.

Q. Re: injuries to Phil Hoskins and Taj Dodson

MARK STOOPS: Both of them will be questionable for this game.

Q. Isaiah Epps, the general timeframe of when he’ll be back?

MARK STOOPS: Not quite yet. He’s working his way back, but he’s not on the depth chart this week.

Q. Re: Sawyer Smith making the tackle after an interception. Looks like he was shaking his hand afterwards. Did he do anything on that play?

MARK STOOPS: He hurt his wrist a little bit, but he’s fine. He’ll be good to go. He finished out the game, didn’t bother him.

Q. On a play like that, for a new quarterback, do you think that’s a kind of play that earns respect from his teammates?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt. That’s a great-effort play. A desire to get him down, what a huge play it turned out to be with the defense stepping up and holding them to a field goal there, and him (Sawyer Smith) running them down. That was great to see. I’m sure his teammates will respect him for that.

Q. How do you prepare for the quarterbacks that Mississippi State plays?

MARK STOOPS: There’s really not much difference in what they do and how they call plays, how they run the offense. There’s really not much difference at all. Both of them are very effective at running the Q (quarterback) run game that they like to do. Both of them are throwing the ball well. It’s set up off of their power run game. Not much has changed.

Q. After a tough loss like that, there’s always a lot of chatter about play calling, whatnot. I find it kind of entertaining, the University of Kentucky hired you as their football coach, they didn’t hire anybody else, so I’d kind of like you to expound on what your philosophy and strategy is in protecting a lead.

MARK STOOPS: Nice try (laughter). Nice try. People are in entitled to their opinions. If they didn’t have any opinions, I’d be worried.

Just in general, talking about the game and the management, you’re about a half-yard from saying it worked to perfection. We were also about six inches short on that third down play, the third-and-two, to still run plays.

At that moment we run for four yards on first down at the end of the game there. Time was an issue because if you noticed, we were a little thin in the secondary. Killing a little bit of clock was important because of the way Florida had been moving the ball in the second half, how thin we were in the secondary.

Then you run it for four yards again on second down. Pretty efficient, I’d say, in that moment. Plus every yard was important. Florida had about 16 sacks at that point on the season, so they could disrupt you. They had some interceptions.

We run for four (on first down), we run for four (on second down). Burning timeouts and burning clock. We run it for two trying to get that two. We convert it, obviously we’re going to go back into scoring mode because the clock is below a minute at that point. We have time. We have plenty of time. We have all of our timeouts. Time wasn’t an issue for us. It was going to be for them, should we be held to a field goal.

You’re a half-yard short and still running plays. People will be talking about it being a thing of beauty, but it wasn’t, so it’s not. If the kick goes in, we still have an unbelievable good chance to win. They have less clock. I believe they would have had one timeout at that point.

Q. Is Chance (Poore) more comfortable with longer kicks?

MARK STOOPS: No, he hit a good kick there. It was trying to turn, it just stopped turning on him. Missed it by a half yard. He cannot dwell on that. He hit a good kick, put a good stroke on it. He just missed it.

No, I don’t know if his comfort level is any higher from longer or shorter. He hits it good in practice. He’ll be all right.

Q. Re: short-yardage situations

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we did. We had a really missed assignment on the fourth-and-one up front. Not trying to be condescending to them, but we had a play. We don’t usually make those mistakes.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of the offensive line, the way they play. Amazingly balanced in this last game. Very physical in the run game, hold a team like Florida to one sack. That was on a missed assignment, as well. Tackle slid the wrong way. But those guys have been so good in making so many difficult calls, the right calls, doing the right things. They’ve been very, very efficient.

We missed that play. That hurt because we could have got, we felt, two, three, four, five yards on that play, maybe more. Again, doesn’t happen much. It happened in a critical moment, so...

Q. Re: how Taj Dodson and the young defensive backs played.

MARK STOOPS: Just okay. There were still some things that they’ve just got to get experienced. They’ve got to play. I was disappointed in the first touchdown. The young guys got to look at each other and communicate. It gets rocking out there, it gets loud. That’s when they really got to focus and communicate, over-communicate.

There’s some things we need to continue to work on. That’s got to come from experience.

Q. Re: Brandin Echols

MARK STOOPS: I like the way he’s playing. Cedric (Dort) and Jamari (Brown) are doing some decent things, as well. They’ll continue to come along.

Q. I know some kickers like to have the ball a little bit closer to one hashmark or the other. Do you know if Chance has a preference?

MARK STOOPS: We do. We actually were trying to get it a little bit more to the left, sort of to the middle. Weren’t able to get it. The ball cut back on one of the runs.

Q. In 2017, at the Florida game, you talked after the Eastern Michigan game about the emotion. How do you sort of avert that in this case?

MARK STOOPS: Well, yeah, it’s a big, big focus this week. I talk about each situation every week. With this, moving on to Mississippi State, we don’t have much time to dwell on it. It’s next man up, next battle, next punch, next time to get another opportunity against a quality team on the road.

There’s other things. With some young guys going on the road, going down there, they’ll be rocking their cowbells, it will be a raucous crowd. (There are) guys that haven’t been exposed to that yet. We’ll try to get ready for that this week.

Q. Re: any further comments on the targeting penalties?

MARK STOOPS: No, no. I don’t want to part with 50,000 (laughter).

Q. Is there any sort of appeal with that?

MARK STOOPS: No, there’s really not.

Q. You mentioned ball security issues in the past. Is that one of the reasons we haven’t seen more of Rodriguez out there?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, that’s part of the reason. We do have confidence in Chris, need to get him back in there. That was part of it. The other part of it was A.J. (Rose) and Kavosiey (Smoke) doing some really good things. But, yeah, you can’t miss out on opportunities and put the ball on the ground.

But he’ll get back out there. We have faith in him and confidence. We can use him. He is different than the other two. He’s young, as well, a little bit inexperienced. It’s hard to say what would happen with certain runs, with certain guys in critical moments. He’ll get back in the fold.

Q. Is Kavosiey getting more plays?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, he is. He’s doing some really good things, making good cuts, good strong runs, breaking tackles, some good things, yeah.

Q. People make a big deal out of who is number one on the depth chart, number two. They’ve gotten equal carries.

MARK STOOPS: Exactly. It’s interchangeable. It can change. It’s not to say that it won’t. But you’re correct, a lot of times it’s just by series, who’s in there. Sometimes based on carries is how we’re doing on that particular drive.

But going back to your question there, I think we really had a nice plan as far as keeping Florida off balance. Also got to give credit to Coach (Eddie) Gran and the staff because we were really efficient at moving the football and controlled a big portion of this game. Really had them off balance, against a good physical team that was very disruptive. To be able to run the ball like we did, but also throw it... We threw it more the Florida. More attempts than they did, kept them off balance.

I thought our line did a good job of keeping protection as well. A team that had that many sacks and pressures, to be able to throw it 35 plus times, whatever it was, depending on the scrambles, only get the one sack by missed assignment was pretty effective by our offensive line.

Q. After you watched the film now, what did you like (about Sawyer Smith) and what do you need to work on?

MARK STOOPS: Obviously the ball security with Sawyer is a big deal. He’s got to protect the ball, early on putting the ball down, that led to the score. He can’t do that. The interceptions, the one when we’re in the red zone, was a critical mistake, as well. It’s a big swing right there. We’re going in, they get it all the way down in the red zone. It was a big, big one.

Then there was a miscommunication on the other one. We need to work that out. But Sawyer did some really good things. There’s a lot to build on. First start against Florida, playing like that, did a really good job.

I thought our team, we were very physical. Went into the game, still have great respect for their run game, for their runningback. I want to say he averaged 1.9 yards per carry. Pretty good back. That’s pretty good by our defensive line. I want to say they had 26 carries for 62 yards until the last fly sweep. That was on the secondary, on the perimeter, not on them. I thought they were pretty efficient. I thought we were good, physical up front, controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides.

There were so many good things, a lot to build on. The negatives obviously, the penalties. Penalties were critical. We get two targetings, a pass interference and a late hit. Then we didn’t play great as a team in the fourth quarter. With the miscommunication, with the interception, we didn’t convert the first fourth-and-one on the first play of the fourth quarter. That was a critical play. We had a lot of momentum at that point.

Just didn’t complement each other down the stretch, (there are) things we got to work on.

Q. (Question about having had three different defensive coordinators during his time.)

MARK STOOPS: We have a lot of confidence in our coaches. We may change coordinators, but our system stays intact. Our assistant coaches and our players know and build on the system that we have.

That’s what’s tough for the defense, because I thought we really did some good things, all things considered. We’re down some secondary guys. You go down two free safeties in that game, really hindered Brad (White) in the ability to make some calls. It really hurt us at times.

But I thought we overcame so much of that, did so many good things against a quality team that you can hurt you across the board. Really put yourself in a position, outside of that last play, to hold them to whatever it was, 250, 260, 270, no, 360, 370, whatever it was. Really ‘til the fourth quarter, played really strong for three quarters.

Got to finish. We talk about that all the time. We have. We’ve won a lot of close games, won a lot of games in the fourth quarter. We didn’t this week. Need to get some guys healthy, need to build some depth in the secondary, need to complement each other on both sides of the ball, get back to what we do.

Q. Re: Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill

MARK STOOPS: He’s a strong runner, really good, physical guy. Their team is physical. They’ve run the ball for over 200 yards in each game this year. But they’re also balanced, throwing for close to 200, as well. But it starts with a physical attack.

Q. Back to the secondary for a second. What do you want them to take out of this game?

MARK STOOPS: I think there’s a lot of good things that they did. Just to build on it, just to build on the way that they have to over-communicate. Young guys got to get in there, inexperienced guys got to understand under that extreme pressure, their habits are going to come straight to the surface. We got to create winning habits, do things right all the time, over-communicate.

If things get rocking, you probably heard last week, we had crowd noise at practice, some young guys, they’ve never been out there when it’s loud. It’s not just the offenses that have a hard time communicating. Defenses do, as well. We practiced that last week. We had crowd noise very, very high in certain periods to make them look at each other and give hand signals. In practice they get in a comfort zone with their checks and calls. You can’t do that in a game, home game like that.

Q. How close are you to using Xavier Peters?

MARK STOOPS: We’ll see. We’ll see how he progresses, how he picks things up. We need every available body we can get obviously, but we need him to understand and be able to execute our defense, too.

Q. With so many young guys in the secondary, how do you juggle those guys?

MARK STOOPS: We got to bring them along. M.J. (Devonshire) is having a little surgery today on a wrist, but he’ll be back if he can, if he can manage the pain, probably cast him up and play. That hinders him a little bit, as well.

But Mo (Moses Douglass) will have to get back in the fold a little bit this week, too.

Q. My memory isn’t as good as it used to be, but what is going on with this wildcat formation? I don’t seem to recall it working very much recently.

MARK STOOPS: Oh, I don’t know. I seem to get that conversation a lot. It seems like the minute it doesn’t work, you’ll hear about it. Every time it’s effective, you don’t hear about it, and you don’t write about it. It’s been very effective for us.

Again, a lot of it’s overblown, you know what I mean? Sometimes you’re trying to maybe pull one person out of it. It’s the exact same run game whether he’s under there or not. Sometimes you can get an extra gap. You never know when we’re going to flip it to him, so you got to cover him, pull somebody out of there.

Q. Back to ball security. What is it like for a coach to have such an experienced secondary last year with leaders, guys who had been in the system for so long, to go to where you have so many young guys you’re trying to teach?

MARK STOOPS: It can be difficult. It’s tough. In general, if you talk about our team last week, what I talked to them about was once we put in a heavy preparation, to really be confident as a team, as a unit.

I thought we really played that way. The team was confident. They were aggressive. We came out and made some plays, put ourselves in a position to win the game.

I think with young guys in that position, if things start going bad, get a couple injuries, it’s human nature I think for them to get a touch rattled, get caught up in the moment a little bit. That’s when they have to focus on their details and their technique. Sometimes that strays.

Sometimes it’s just bad luck, to have two free safeties go down. We don’t have time to rep three (give practice repetitions to three) in a specific game, nor the depth to have three in there with all the different calls. There’s so many nuances and adjustments and things. You don’t have three.

Q. You’re running against some great receivers.

MARK STOOPS: Exactly. It handcuffed Brad (White) with some things, with some calls. That’s just unfortunate.

Q. Re: pass rush by the defensive line

MARK STOOPS: At times they’ve done a really good job. At times maybe not. Again, everybody has some strengths and weaknesses. We have some strengths. Part of those strengths can be weaknesses as well. We’re a big, strong team up front. We got some good pass-rush, not always. We got to continue to rotate guys in.

A little bit of a bad break again with getting Phil (Hoskins, injured). Phil does have some really good twitch. He’s a fast guy, he’s loose, different type of rusher. We were excited to get him back this week, then he gets hurt in the pregame. That doesn’t help us, as well.

Q. Have you ever lost a player in the pregame warmups?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, yeah, I did. Back when I first got here, yeah. We lost some, yeah. I don’t want to make light of it. It was hard to throw and catch in pregame (laughter).

Q. With Jordan (Griffin) being the only guy out there with a lot of experience in the secondary, how has he taken this upon himself?

MARK STOOPS: He is. He’s trying. He’s relatively inexperienced as well, as far as game reps, game time. Jordan is a great kid, a great leader. He’s trying the best he can.

Q. What did you see from the tight ends Saturday? Seemed like they were more involved in the passing game.

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, they were. They did a nice job. Justin (Rigg) is a big target. He does a nice job of blocking with some option routes, getting him the football. A nice catch by Keaton (Upshaw). That’s where that size pays off. Goes up and makes a competitive catch.

Those guys are doing a good job.

Q. You mentioned the crowd noise, the cowbells. Any way to simulate that in practice?

MARK STOOPS: No. I mean, with us, the best simulation will be just to turn up that crowd noise as loud as we can. We have some nice equipment out there now with the new practice facility with the speakers. It will be good and loud to where the offense has to do everything on a silent count. They will be prepared for completely being blocked out from the sound.

Q. It looked like Marquan McCall made some good plays against Florida.

MARK STOOPS: He did, yeah. He’s doing better. We got to continue to work him in a little better shape so he can play longer, play faster.

But he did. He did some good plays. He’s a powerful guy. When he gets some single blocks, he’s good with power rushing, putting guys right in the quarterback’s face, too, affecting the quarterback that way.

Q. Coach Moorhead’s second year at Mississippi State. What are the characteristics of his offense?

MARK STOOPS: He just does a nice job. Similar in a lot of ways to Florida, the way they were years ago with Dan (Mullen). I say it in this way: they all want to be physical. It starts with a physical attack. They’re committed to being physical and running the ball. With that, that sets up a lot of play-action, double moves, max protect, pushing the ball, getting the ball down the field.