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October 6, 2013
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops found Saturday night's 35-28 loss to No. 12 South Carolina disappointing and frustrating, but said the nature of the loss showed his program is on the right track.
Just days after declaring that the game's 21-point spread wouldn't be enough, Stoops said after the game that Kentucky's near-upset of the Gamecocks in a hostile environment points to a gradual shift in the culture of the program he took over in November of 2012.
"We in that locker room are changing the culture. I believe that," Stoops said after the game. "We know we can do better, but believe me, the culture is changing."
Stoops was pleased with his team's effort and response to falling behind 21-0 to South Carolina early in the game. Stoops said his team knew the Gamecocks would get off to a fast start at home, and that they had prepared themselves to battle back.
"They're a team that can get you off balance and strike very quickly, and they did that early," Stoops said.
"Our players showed a lot of character," Stoops said. "They showed a lot of toughness, and they're doing things the right way...They came back and played with great effort and great passion."
But while it was encouraging to Stoops that the Wildcats gave themselves a chance to win, it was equally disappointing that they couldn't make the most of it. One failed opportunity Stoops specifically mentioned came on South Carolina's final possession. The Wildcats' offense had found the end zone of each of its past three drives and was itching to get the ball back with just over two minutes left.
Desperately needing to stop both the Gamecocks and the clock on a second-and-four play, Stoops urged his defense to blitz, telling them that South Carolina would either hand off to Davis or run a quarterback keeper. But the Wildcat defense lost containment of Mike Davis on the handoff anyway, allowing him to cut left and escape with a seven-yard first-down run. Three kneels later, the game was on ice.
"I thought that if we could have gotten another stop there defensively that we would have given ourselves a chance to score," Stoops said. Stoops said that while he was proud of his team for battling back and putting itself in that position, their failure to execute pointed to a need for improvement.
"We all can do things better as a coaching staff and as players," Stoops said. "We're all in this together and we all need to do what we need to do to make plays at the end of this game to win."
It was the first game this season Kentucky played just one quarterback, putting the offense in the hands of sophomore Jalen Whitlow, and Stoops was pleased with the results. Jalen Whitlow appeared to settle in as the game progressed, completing 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. The quarterback also led the Wildcats in rushing, carrying the ball 17 times for 85 yards and a touchdown.
"It was good to see the offense finding a rhythm and moving the ball, getting the ball into the end zone," Stoops said.
"We understand [Jalen's] not perfect," Stoops said. "He missed some throws here and there, but we saw some good runs."
Another positive Stoops could take from the game was Kentucky's improvement on critical downs. The Wildcats entered the game having converted just one of their past 21 third-down attempts, but converted 5 of 11 third downs and both of their fourth-down tries against the Gamecocks.
"Offensively, moving the ball and scoring some points against a very good defense in a hostile environment was good to see," Stoops said. "It was good to see some tough yards for a change as well."
Stoops said his team could have played better, but he thought they did well given their slow start and the circumstances.
"You know you're going to be in a touch situation with coach Spurrier and the balance that they have and Connor Shaw playing," Stoops said. "You've got to give credit to that young man. He's very tough and he made some critical runs at the end. "
Stoops may not take any moral victories from the loss, but he will use the game as a foundation for the Wildcats to improve upon.
"They're tough to beat here, and we gave it our best shot," Stoop said. "We need to do better."
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