Opener about Much More Than Revenge for UK
A year later, the wounds are still fresh.
Ask Mark Stoops about Kentucky’s season-opening loss to Southern Miss last season and you’ll find out.
“It disgusts me,” Stoops said on his call-in show Monday.
Benny Snell didn’t play in the game, but he remembers well what it was like to be on the sideline as UK’s 35-10 lead evaporated en route to a 44-35 defeat.
“It was very frustrating,” Snell said. “I’m emotional, so I was mad at myself. I was mad at everything.”
Snell was mad at himself for not earning playing time in the game (though of course he would soon after in a 1,000-yard freshman season), but he had an interesting response when he was asked whether the Wildcats would be using the defeat as motivation entering their trip to Southern Miss for a rematch with the Golden Eagles at 4 p.m. on Saturday in both team’s season opener.
“We’re not trying to not use it,” Snell said.
That response is as illuminating as it is confusing. Turning to Stoops provides a little more clarity and context.
“Last year was last year,” Stoops said. “This year is this year. I tell the players, if that motivates them, fine. Motivate them to prepare. I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s about our preparation and how we play and how precise we play. We’ve got to keep our poise and focus and execute.”
On one hand, there’s no hiding from that loss. With UK returning 16 starters from last year’s team, the memories are too painful.
On the other, avenging a heart-wrenching defeat is hardly a solid foundation for lasting success. After all, UK learned a year ago what can happen when the juice runs out.
“We better be emotionally ready to play and very excited to play, but it’s about, throughout this week, how motivated are they throughout camp and throughout this last week here in camp, and the last week of preparations, to do what we can to put ourselves in a position to win games,” Stoops said. “That’s what I want to use the motivation for.
“Just getting all hyped up and all that, that goes out the window in 10 minutes of a game. Sometimes it’s counterproductive if you waste a lot of energy on it. That’s our focus, to play very precise football and do the very best we can and execute on all sides.”
Execution for the offense means building on the ground game UK established a season ago, taking better care of the football and finding improved consistency in the passing game. The Cats get to gauge how they stack up in a live – and hostile – environment against Southern Miss.
“I’m really excited about playing a game and hitting somebody else,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “I’m excited to see where we’re at. You get in your second year of an offense and they know what to do. We’re gonna see if they can go execute now. It’s not gonna be anything magical. It’s really gonna be about going up there, executing and coming with an attitude.”
That attitude is going to be of particular importance on first down, says Gran.
“You know what, they’re fast, they’re twitchy up front, a lot of movement and they cause some problems,” Gran said. “The biggest thing they feed on is getting you in second and long. We’ve got to be efficient on first down. I’ve talked about that a lot. We’re good when we’re efficient on first down. When we’re not, then you’re behind the chains and that’s when they feed off of what they do well.”
On the other side of the ball, UK will have to deal with the same running back – Ito Smith – who rushed for 173 yards and had another 40 receiving yards as Southern Miss piled up 520 total yards and 32 first downs last season.
“He’s good,” Denzil Ware said. “He’s a good back. He’s a good, talented guy. I wish him the best and I respect him a lot and I respect his game, but at the end of the day I gotta worry about…my d-linemen, my DBs, my linebackers and the (offense) gotta focus on them. We gotta worry about UK and just play Kentucky football.”
The Cats have been watching plenty of tape of last year’s game to prepare for this go-round, which hasn’t been the most pleasant experience. Even so, there is a silver lining to that.
“Our defense has grown so much from last season,” Courtney Love said. “You can definitely tell on tape from that game to this year’s camp preparation and this year’s game preparation. You can tell we’ve grown a lot.”
UK is better when it comes to schemes, assignments and execution, but there’s a more important area in which the Cats have made strides. Saturday offers them their first chance to prove that.
“I see a lot more guys bought in,” Ware said. “I see a lot more guys wanting to play for one another. All that selfishness is gone. It’s always team-first. It’s been team-first since day one. Since we started spring, it’s been team-first and it’s just been all team ball. We trust our coaches and we trust our training and we’re just ready to play.”