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.

RELATED: Kentucky spring preview: Wildcats have surprisingly few holes to fill

“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.

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