Kentucky overcame bad start to make a bowl in 2016; now, pressure’s on to bowl again

kentucky coach mark stoops

LEXINGTON, Ky. – After moving into a sparkling $55 million football office and training complex last summer, Mark Stoops decided that in his fourth season as Kentucky’s coach, it was time to start embracing the expectations.

“We can’t back away from expectations,” Stoops said when I visited his office last year. “We have to get to a bowl this season.”

To that end, the 2016 season could not have gotten off to a worse start. Kentucky jumped out to a 35-10 lead in the opener against Southern Miss, to collapse as the Golden Eagles stormed back to win 44-35. The following week at Florida, the Wildcats were pounded 45-7 – their 30th consecutive loss to the Gators. So, not only had Kentucky started 0-2, the Wildcats had given up 89 points in its first two games.

The following week against New Mexico State, UK starting quarterback Drew Barker injured his back on the first series of a 62-42 win. He missed the rest of the season.

Thus, three games into a pivotal season, the Wildcats were 1-2 and without their starting quarterback. The defense had allowed 131 points (43.6 points per game). If there ever was a time a team could have been forgiven for panicking, this would have been it.

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“I have to give our guys credit. They never panicked,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran says. “Our job as coaches and players was to figure what we could do to make things better and to focus on that.”

The first thing Stoops did was bring in an old friend, former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, to speak to the team. Pennington hammered home three things the Kentucky team was going to have to face if it wanted to turn its season around.

* Expectations vs. standards. “Expectations come from other people. Standards comes from each of us,” Stoops says. “You set your standard and play to that – every day.”

* Commitment vs. routine. “The routine is the stuff you do every day without thinking about it. Commitment is what you do beyond the routine because you want to be the best you can be,” says Gran, a former assistant to Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss, Auburn, and Cincinnati and to Jimbo Fisher at Florida State.

* Finally, Pennington told the players they had to take ownership of the 1-2 start and recommit themselves to getting the problems fixed. “It’s three weeks into the season and we had to look at every aspect of our football team,” says Stoops, looking back. “We had to figure out what works and emphasize that.”

First, the offense turned to junior college transfer quarterback Stephen Johnson. He is more mobile and athletic than Barker but does not throw the ball as well. Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw devised a plan to take advantage of Johnson’s running skills and committed more to the ground game with running backs Stanley “Boom” Williams, JoJo Kemp and freshman Benny Snell.

It worked. By the end of the season, Williams and Snell each had rushed for 1,000 yards. Kentucky’s new identity led them to four wins in the next five games, the only loss being to No. 1 Alabama (34-6). Even in the Alabama game, there was something positive: On UK’s last possession, the Wildcats drove the ball 63 yards on 16 plays and used 9:42 of the clock.

“About that time, I’m thinking, ‘Boys, we might have something here,’ ” Gran says.

From that point, Kentucky was competitive in every game. And there was drama. Lots of drama.

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