Stoops turned 0-2 start into rally cry
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
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.