Stoops turned 0-2 start into rally cry

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BOB HOLT

HOOVER, Ala. — Ken­tucky fell to 0-2 af­ter a 45-7 loss to Florida in Gainesville last Sept. 10, and a re­turn trip to the Sun­shine State for a bowl game seemed out of the ques­tion for the Wild­cats.

Ken­tucky’s 30th con­sec­u­tive loss to the Ga­tors fol­lowed a 4435 de­feat to South­ern Mis­sis­sippi at Com­mon­wealth Sta­dium in the sea­son opener when the Golden Ea­gles scored the game’s last 34 points.

It wasn’t the start Ken­tucky Coach Mark Stoops, the Wild­cats and their fans ex­pected in his fourth sea­son on the job.

“It was a very, very dif­fi­cult time be­cause you open the sea­son with a lot of op­ti­mism,” Stoops said two weeks ago at SEC me­dia days. “You’re very ex­cited. The play­ers have worked hard.

“And cer­tainly, I think, year 4 is very dif­fi­cult for coaches in the po­si­tion I was in.

“As you’re try­ing to build a

pro­gram in the SEC, it’s nut-cut­ting time, you know? Peo­ple were tired of hear­ing you’re get­ting bet­ter. “It’s about wins and losses.” Ken­tucky se­nior quar­ter­back Stephen John­son said Stoops chal­lenged the play­ers af­ter the Florida loss.

“As soon as that game was over and we went back into the locker room Coach Stoops said, ‘It’s just us against the world now. We’re go­ing to have no back­ing be­sides maybe a few peo­ple. So it’s all go­ing to be on us what we want our sea­son to look like from here on out,’” John­son said.

“We took that to heart.” John­son came off the bench the next week af­ter start­ing quar­ter- back Drew Barker suf­fered a back in­jury against New Mex­ico State. John­son com­pleted 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards and four touch­downs and rushed 10 times for 51 yards to lead the Wild­cats to a 62-42 vic­tory.

It was the start of a 7-3 run for Ken­tucky with John­son tak­ing over as the starter, capped by a 41-38 vic­tory at No. 11 Louisville.

John­son com­pleted 145 of 265 passes for 2,037 yards and 13 touch­downs with six in­ter­cep­tions and rushed 97 times for 327 yards and three touch­downs last sea­son.

“Stephen was thrown into the

fire, but he has a great de­meanor about him,” Stoops said. “He’s never too high, never too low.

“He’s con­stantly try­ing to get bet­ter and he has very good poise.”

Beat­ing Louisville and quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son, the even­tual Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner, re­sulted in Ken­tucky earn­ing its first bowl bid since 2010.

The Wild­cats went to the Taxs­layer Bowl in Jack­sonville, Fla. — 75 miles north­east of Gainesville but seem­ingly a mil­lion miles from where they were as team af­ter the Florida game.

Ge­or­gia Tech beat Ken­tucky 3318 in the Taxs­layer Bowl and the Wild­cats fin­ished 7-6.

It was Ken­tucky’s first win­ning sea­son since 2009 when Rich Brooks re­tired as coach. A 4-4 con­fer­ence record tied the Wild­cats for sec­ond in the SEC East.

Ken­tucky was 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7 in Stoops’ first three sea­sons.

“I think our con­fi­dence com­ing into this sea­son is a lot higher than

it was last sum­mer,” said John­son, a ju­nior-col­lege trans­fer from Ran­cho Cu­ca­mongo, Calif. “We know now that we can win big games in tough sit­u­a­tions and not just die in the fourth quar­ter.

“I’m ex­cited for what we have in store.”

So is Stoops, es­pe­cially with 17 starters back.

“Our team needed to ma­ture,” he said. “We needed to work them harder. We needed to have stronger weight-lift­ing ses­sions, run them harder, have longer prac­tices and be tougher men­tally and phys­i­cally to be able to en­dure the rig­ors of an SEC sea­son.

“It was re­ally nice to see that come to fruition a year ago and fin­ish the way we did. We’re ready to take it to the next level.”

Se­nior mid­dle line­backer Court­ney Love is in his third sea­son at Ken­tucky af­ter trans­fer­ring from Ne­braska. He said Stoops should be cred­ited with chang­ing the pro­gram’s cul­ture and used off­sea­son work­outs among the play­ers as an ex­am­ple of the dif­fer­ence.

“Coaches can’t be around the play­ers in the sum­mer, so we have to run the work­outs our­selves,” Love said.

“Two years ago it was chaos be­cause guys weren’t do­ing what they were sup­posed to do.

“Now it looks like we’re a real team when we’re out there. We’re mak­ing sure we do what we have to do.”

“I think our con­fi­dence com­ing into this sea­son is a lot higher than it was last sum­mer. We know now that we can win big games in tough sit­u­a­tions and not just die in the fourth quar­ter. — QB Stephen John­son

AP/DAVID STEPHEN­SON

Ken­tucky se­nior quar­ter­back Stephen John­son came off the bench in Week 3 last sea­son and fin­ished with 2,037 yards pass­ing and 13 touch­downs to help the Wild­cats over­come an 0-2 start by win­ning seven of their fi­nal 11 games.

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