Many of us thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse.
But this past Thursday, Big Blue Nation lost offensive line coach John Schlarman after his two year battle with cancer. Just two days later Kentucky played host to the Vanderbilt Commodores. Star tackle Landon Young wore Schlarman’s former number, 65, in honor of his position coach, while Chris Rodriguez honored teammate Chris Oats by wearing number 22.
Kentucky came out with a statement in the first half, specifically Terry Wilson who accounted for all of Kentucky’s touchdowns. After missing the Wildcats’ matchup with Georgia, Wilson came back on fire throwing for two scores and running one in during the first half.
Despite the Wildcats’ defense playing stellar over the last few games, Kentucky needed every bit of Wilson’s offensive production to stay in front of the first half. Vanderbilt connected on two touchdown passes themselves, keeping the contest close as both teams went into halftime with a score of 21-14 Wildcats.
The second half was more of the same, as the offense jumped out to a 38-21 lead late, but the Dores scored 14 unanswered points to put it at 38-35 with 30 seconds left.
Thankfully, Kentucky recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock en route to their third victory of the season.
Following the emotional game, head coach Mark Stoops and select players met with the media to recap the victory. Here’s a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.
MARK STOOPS: Thank you, Tony. You know, obviously it was extremely important for us to come away with a victory today. As it’s been well documented all week, it was extremely important for to us play well for LeAnne, coach John Schlarman, his family, his kids, and was really proud of the team to get this victory.
Wasn’t easy. It was an emotional week. It’s very different times for everybody, and then we’ve been hit with a few curve balls this year. Certainly very discouraging news this week with the passing of Jon. There was no getting around it that that was important to me and it was important to our team to win for them and to honor Jon and the man that he was, to continue his legacy.
I felt like our team came out and we played very good football. Vandy has been much more efficient moving the ball offensively, and they did a good job certainly late I felt like.
With playing in this league in the competitive games that we’re in, when we were up I believe it was 17, I felt like it is really important forget Beau in the game. Instead of going to our normal ground and pound, and we felt like we probably could have done that obviously to play — you know, the series before we ripped off a big run and were getting physical and starting to run.
I felt like it was important for our program, important to give Beau some reps and throw the ball around a little bit. We’re not in that opportunity too many times. Certainly I didn’t want to get it that close and probably would’ve been crucified had they got that on-side kick and come back.
Again, I want to continue to push the program forward, so I did feel like the game was in control. I would’ve liked for our backups on defense to play a little better late in that game. And for us to have to go back and put some starters back in and try to preserve the victory, wasn’t real pleased with the end in particular defensively.
But, again, felt like it was important just to get guys snaps and throw the football and not just go in to kill the clock and ground and pound. If we would’ve done that, I felt like obviously we could have probably cut into that — the way they come back there at the end, could have killed some more clock. So part of that is on me.
Again, in the long run, getting the victory and getting Beau some snaps and getting Joey some snaps, it was important.
Q. Can you just walk us through the tribute on the opening play, how you all came up with that, and just kind of how that developed.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I’m really not sure. Mitch is in here and Mark Hill and Dan, the guys just came up with it and mentioned it to me early in the week or throughout this week, and I thought it was a great idea.
The O-line have been trading off 65, and Landon was wearing it today. Somebody in the staff here came up with the idea, and of course we all thought it was a great idea.
You know, I have great respect for Derek Mason and should have said that in my opening statement, the respect I have for him and the way he coaches as well. But he immediately said, Coach, I’ll decline that. He didn’t have to.
But I also want to compliment him on his team. He had quite a few opt outs. He’s got guys hurt, down very low. It would be very easy for them to say they’re under the threshold and not play, and they continue to coach very well and scrap and play.
You have to compliment Derek for that and his staff, because that team plays hard, and we knew they would.
Anyway, getting back to the question, I thought it was good idea by somebody in our staff. I’m not sure who gets credit for that. I was on board with it right away, and it was great to honor him that way.
Q. Kind of following up with that, what was your message to the team going out before the game in such an unusual situation like this? What did you share with them?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it was different. You know, certainly there was a lot of conversation that I would like to keep in the locker room. A lot of that is personal. The bottom line is to honor John by playing the way he coached, lived his life, and we constantly talked about the tenacity that he had, the toughness that he had, but also when he was a player he was extremely technical and very detailed.
And so we knew we would be emotional, but I also really wanted to execute and really felt like offensively we really played pretty sharp and had 460 yards on only 55 plays.
So we’re very explosive and efficient offensively. Had we played a little better defensively I really thought we could have done — kept on getting some points on there and would’ve been a much greater margin for the victory.
But really that was a big part of it for John, just to honor him. Wanted to make sure that LeAnne and their kids had a game ball with a W on it; didn’t want to give them a game ball with a loss, and it’s important for us to bring that to them and do that for them.
Q. Terry was very efficient today, especially hitting those touchdowns across the middle to the tight ends — one of them was across the middle; one of them was maybe in the corner. But those guys, just how important was it to get those guys involved and Terry comfortable going back out there after being off a few weeks?
MARK STOOPS: I thought it was very important just in general offensively. I felt like we were very efficient today throwing the ball and I felt like we could have been even more efficient. Again, I put that on the defense. I feel like if we didn’t let them possession the ball the entire second half we could have got a lot more opportunities and kept on throwing it around a little bit and were very efficient in keeping people off balance, and we’re going to need that moving forward.
Q. Talking about the defense, I know you won’t know for sure until you look at video, but anything in particular stick out to you there?
MARK STOOPS: It just seemed like to me that it was one of those games where they want everybody else to make the play, not them. That’s just how I felt. I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m sure there are some guys that played very hard, but to me we were just out there oozing, just lining up, expecting somebody to make a call, stop somebody instead of making plays and trying to stop people. It was evident. We made very few competitive plays.
Q. 308 rushing yards, no sacks allowed. I’m sure Chris was even touched on that 74-yard touchdown. What does that say about the offensive line today?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, and being down Luke and Kenneth as well. You know, so we had backups stepping in and really playing well. I know it was important to those guys to play well. There was no doubt in my mind. It was important to all of us, but certainly that group it’s personal. They wanted to honor Jon and play a very tough, physical game like the way Coach Schlarman lived, and they did that.
Q. You had both your punter and kicker out, and yet Chance comes in and he’s perfect, and Colin did a great job. When did they know they were getting the start, and talk about their performance today.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we knew for a couple days, and I was very proud of those guys the way they stepped in and really did a good job in the kicking game. Chance was really solid. We did a great job in the punt game as well, so it was good.
Q. Almost looked like, at least to me watching Terry, that was like the 2018 Terry, making the decisions he did, showing the speed he did. Is that a fair observation or...
MARK STOOPS: I agree with you. I felt like this was the Terry that I expect him to play each and every week. Again, I think that has a lot to do with the people around him and the coaching and putting him in a position to be successful.
Yeah, I thought he played very well and he was very efficient. And let me say I’m proud of him and the way he responded, because that position is different. Let’s just be honest, it is. There is so much scrutiny, pressure on that position, and you have to play well at that position to be successful.
And there is times when it all comes down on him and there is times it’s deserving and there are times that it’s not. But he didn’t look for an opportunity to run and hide. He took that criticism, took the coaching, and he got better. I really respect the way he responded and the way he came back and play.
Now, we expect him to do that every week. That’s the standard which we need him to play at and that is across the board.
Q. Are you at liberty to talk about the absences of Matt and Max, just a reason for their absences and other players?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, you could probably read between the lines. I can’t comment on that.
Q. Just wanted to hear it —
MARK STOOPS: Tony cut you off. Not me.
Q. The SEC announced yesterday I think until — moving forward until Monday you might not know who you’re going to play on Saturdays for the rest of the season. What does that do for preparation and how do you approach the last three weeks?
MARK STOOPS: Well, there are things that we’re going to do every week and that carry over. We do advance scouting on or opponents anyway and watch them and crossover on film, so we’ll make it work. Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it.
You know, that’s the approach we have taken all year. I really respect our players and our staff, and they’ve done a really good job trying to stay as safe as they can.
Our team is responding and we’ll show up. We’ll be there next Saturday wherever they tell us to play.
Q. Is there anything in the next few days you and your team plan to do for LeAnne and the family and is there anything UK fans can do that you would encourage them to do?
MARK STOOPS: So, yes. LeAnne and the family have a service that will be private on Monday, and then there will be a memorial here in the afternoon, on Monday afternoon. I mean, it’s not open to the public. For the team and for LeAnne and her family and alumni, Jon’s friends. He knows so many people. Ex players, so many people that played and coached with Jon at all his different stops.
So you can imagine there is an awful lot of people that want to come pay their respects to LeAnne and Jon, and so we will do that on Monday.
I know LeAnne mentioned to me that Jon was very close to a lot you media as well, so I don’t want — I like to stay in my lane, you know that. But I also know that LeAnne personally had involved some media I believe as well. Maybe not to film and everything or anything like that, but just to pay your respects as well. Because I know many of you were close to Jon.
Q. Mark, you talked about that it wasn’t just Terry, it was the players around Terry. I know you put a lot of emphasis or working on the passing game over the last two weeks. How do you think the receivers did today?
MARK STOOPS: I thought they did a good job. I felt like there was a lot more plays out there. I’m disappointed. We had only 55 plays again, but we did have 458 yards, which is great, very explosive. I wish we had more opportunities.
That comes back to defense getting off the field and giving us some more opportunities and letting those guys have a little bit of fun because they’ve worked extremely hard. I felt like they been working hard and I felt like we could have continued to be more efficient in throwing the ball, but there is also that fine line. Again, winning.
Again, that’s why I did that with seven and a half minutes left or whatever it was. Normally we could go right into — we’re as good a four-minute offensive team as most because we’re extremely efficient at running the ball and get creative in sets and can pound the ball and use up clock and get some first downs.
Again, I felt like for the growth of the program it was important to throw the ball around a little bit. Made it a little closer than I wanted to, that’s for sure.
Q. A lot of people view Chris Rodriguez is an inside guy, a guy that gets the tough yards, makes something out of nothing a lot of times when the nothing is there. How pleasing was it to you to see him break out?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, doesn’t surprise me. You know, we feel like he’s a complete back. He gets very tough yards, but he also can be explosive, and so it was good for him to get some big plays.
Q. Mark, just talk about Chris’ performance and just the way he’s running right now. You know, just seems to be on a roll right now.
MARK STOOPS: Well, I’m just looking at his stats there and I guess I can’t argue with you there. He had 11.5 yards per carry. That’s pretty impressive. So I agree. Again, it’s not surprising to us. We have great confidence in him. We have confidence in our other backs.
And, again, there was only 55 snaps there but we were very explosive. Again, darn near 460 for 55. I wish we could have got some more possessions. That comes down to getting some better stops defensively, certainly in the second half.
Let me just say I appreciate you. Thank you for reaching out during this difficult time to myself, LeAnne and the family. You guys have done a remarkable job of covering Jon and honoring him, and we appreciate it and I know LeAnne does. Just want to say thank you.
On the emotional first play of the game …
“The emotions just going through my mind were we just lost a member of our family. More than a member of our family, but we lost our coach and someone who was basically a father figure for every offensive lineman that has come through this program. So, we are going to honor him any way we can. Just because of the impact and influence he had on all of our lives, one of the toughest and greatest men I’ve ever had the chance of meeting in my life. We left a spot out there because we are missing one of our Wildcats today. Another thing, just to be able to have the opportunity to wear his number (65) just shows how much bigger than football it is. It was a blessing for me and a blessing for him to allow us to do it before he passed away, and a blessing that his family still wanted us to do it and they were here to see it. You know I want to go out there to play my game and lead anyway, but to be able to do it for a little extra reason with that number on me.”
On whose idea it was to start the game with an intentional penalty …
“It was kind of a cumulative effort. I know that the coaches definitely wanted to take a penalty and take a moment of silence for Coach (John Schlarman), show that we were missing a Wildcat. We actually decided right before in the pregame to actually bump (offensive guard) Luke (Fortner) to tackle for the very first play so that Coach Schlarman was a guard when he played here, and I know he’s always a guard at heart, so we wanted to leave a spot open for him to show where he played and represent that number well.”
On the difficulty of the past 48 hours …
“It was definitely hard, and it doesn’t get any easier talking about it. But we wanted to make sure we did what he wanted us to do every single day, and I know he’s sitting up there watching us right now, and you know having the mentality and grit that he had he would not have wanted us to sit down and feel sorry for ourselves for one second. The man never did it himself, even though he was pumping drugs into his body, and for goodness’ sake came out to practice not just hours after he had just gotten his first surgery a couple weeks ago. So, the last thing he would want us to do is sit back and feel sorry for ourselves and miss a game or practice, or not do this or that. That’s just his mentality. He’s a tough man, and he loved his game of football, and at the end of the day, one of the last conversations I had with him, ‘Coach Schlarman, why do you do this after all these surgeries? Why do you bring all this effort and attitude?’ His simple answer was ‘For the team.’ You can’t have a much better answer then that. A guy that’s truly committed to the game of football and is truly committed to each and every soul on that field, and what is best for us is growing us as men and being able to further us as a football player and have the best opportunity we can out there.”
Chris Rodriguez Jr.
On his 74-yard run …
“You know it felt good. I don’t treat any run different. I run inside, and I run outside, but I mean I prefer it inside.”
On the added emotion within the offensive line …
“I could tell in the meetings this week. You know Coach (Mark) Stoops had some words for us and showed us a video that we made. But you could see it in their faces that they were just really sad. But today, you saw in their faces that they wanted to come out and play and win for (Schlarman) today.”
On his memories of Coach Schlarman …
“Before I really started playing, Coach Schlarman would always encourage me to run people over with the ball, and I really liked that. But coming to practice, you could just see it in his face that he was hurting. Sometimes I go to practice and I don’t want to be here, but then you look at that man and what he’s going through, and every day he was there. He was just a strong human being who taught me a lot.”
On what the last three weeks have been like for him …
“It’s really just been trying to get back healthy. Like I said with my wrist, it’s kind of limited me. I couldn’t throw so I had to sit out a couple practices. But once that started to get better and get back in the groove of things, just looking at things we can improve in and things I can do better to be able to go out and win a football game and continue to win football games. Locking down on what we have to do and what I have to do, to help the team.”
On the play between him and running back Asim Rose …
“I threw it and I thought it was the perfect pass, but it came up short. I had to put some more on it, and it’s just something that I wish I could get back. But now I know the next time we call that play, let it (go) and let AJ get it. It’s one of those plays that you look at and you’re like ‘Ugh, you don’t want that happening.’ We just have to correct it.”
On his offensive line …
“Coach Schlarman would want those guys to go out there and do what they do. He wouldn’t want them to be pouting around and feeling sorry. That’s just the type of guy Coach Schlarman was, a tough dude and he wants his players to be tough. Our o-line went out there and executed and did what they were supposed to do. Those guys mean so much to me, seeing how much they work, and this week was tough for us. And seeing how they responded, those guys really give it their all each week, every game. So, we just have to keep working and get ready for next week.”
Jamin Davis, Jr.
On the defensive and offensive performance today …
“In general, it’s just something we have to clean up moving forward. It’s always easy to just point the fingers at offense or defense but as a team we just want to stay together and figure out what we got to do moving forward.”
On not having DeAndre Square as much in today’s game …
“Marquez (Bembry) did a good job of answering the call. It was a little different, but I just tried to make sure I focused enough on my game. And be ready for whatever I had to do, whether it was Mike or Will. There still is some things to clean up on film and moving forward just making sure we are exact with everything moving forward. And, just being ready to answer the call honestly.”
On the tough schedule ahead …
“We look at it like anyone else on the schedule. We don’t worry about anything. Like I said before we don’t pay attention to outside noise and what-not. We just prepare the same way we would prepare for anyone else and do what we got to do to come out the right way.”