Everything University of Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops said during his press conference following Saturday’s 45-28 win against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 2023 Southeastern Conference opener both teams:
Stoops’ opening statement:
Obviously, it feels good to get on the road and get the first conference victory. I felt like the past couple of weeks we’ve been improving and gearing up and getting better in certain areas. Getting off to a fast start on the road for an 11 o’clock kickoff was something of importance. We stressed that, and it was great to see. There were obviously some moments in there that are just kind of sloppy. Whether it be a slip, we got stepped on, right in a row. It gets very — I don’t want to say concerning. It gets frustrating at times. I think that’s why you have a team.
I think defensively we played really well for the most part. Got a little out of sorts during a tempo at the end of that first half. Came out and set the tone early in the second half though. Played really good football for the majority of the night. Again, kind of some junk points and yards late, but really put it away. So, really proud of the defense. Again, pretty solid special teams-wise.
Offensively, did some good things. Some of the same things have caught up to us again. Some non-efficient runs, some negative-yardage runs. Protection here or there, maybe a drop, missed throw, you name it. A little bit of each person, but those are some things we can continue to work on and get better. You go on the road and win by 17 and for all intents and purposes had a chance to win by 24 on the road against a team that has a lot of pride. So does ours. So does ours.
They beat us a year ago, to their credit, and our players I think came out with a good mentality starting on Monday. And they came into this game with a good, strong mentality. I know Vanderbilt and the way they’re coached. They lost a heartbreaker a week ago, and I knew darn well they would come out and respond and play like they did, play tough and play hard. It’s 1-0 in conference. Let’s move onto the next.
On the defense helping carry the offense with its own points:
It’s very important. I think we’ve done a nice job and (defensive coordinator) Brad (White), we’ve intentionally kind of been a little — I don’t want to say more aggressive. We’ve always mixed things up. We’ve been more efficient. I don’t know what the third-down situation was tonight. It’s probably hard to tell when you’re in prevent. I know early when the game was on the line we played some pretty good football. For really the entire first half until those last couple of drives we got a little off kilter there.
On D’Eryk Jackson’s interception as a momentum flip:
Fair. It was a big moment. I think it might have been a 13-point game at that point. … The pick was good. A stop was important at that point in time, let alone a turnover and setting it up. What were we in turnover ratio today? Positive side again. Three to two. We need to eliminate our two, but turnover margin is a big deal. I want to continue to be on the plus side of that. It’s super important as we get into SEC play. It’s an area we needed to improve, as we talked a lot about things we needed to improve a year ago. We were on the negative side of that. We needed to flip the script and be on the positive side of that. The three turnovers were obviously huge for us defensively. We need to continue to clean it up on our turnovers.
On Maxwell Hairston bouncing back from last year:
Just experience and just playing. He gets more and more confidence the more and more he plays. Both he and Andru (Phillips) are really playing at a high level right now. They both are doing some really good things. It’s good for him.
On if he’s coached a player with two pick-sixes in the same game:
I know it’s the first time in Kentucky school history. Probably not in mine. (Laughs).
On if he coached Jackson to make the lateral in that situation:
No. (Laughs). No, that’s playing ball. That was some good awareness though. Obviously possession is important at that point in time, but with nobody around him he had the opportunity to do that. That was a big play.
On if it worries him the offense hasn’t put together a full game yet:
I’m not exactly ecstatic about it. Can I enjoy it for five minutes? (Laughs). We’re 4-0, and I’ve been pissed off at every press conference. So, I told the team I’m not going to allow — and I’ve said it to you guys before. You go on the road, you win by 17 points against a team I really respect. I know what we have ahead of us, so we will improve. But let’s learn from it and continue to grow. There’s some things in there that kind of, for us, a little bit bewildering. Like, did that really just happen? You know?
We’ve just got to get some things … listen, if you all watch football, and I know you do, you see it across the board. You see it in the NFL and they do it all day every day. You see it in college. Not that that makes it OK and not that it’s an excuse, but again, our players need to focus on the good things they’re doing; they need to continue to stay with that really good, aggressive mentality they’ve had. They came to work last week on Monday ready to, whether you want to call it revenge or whatever — we knew we needed to play. You’re going on the road to play in the SEC; let’s step it up. And I think they’re trying. We’re trying. We’re trying to be more detailed, trying to be more effective. Then there’s things that happen: tipped balls, holds, a lot of things to clean up. But if our mentality stays the way it is, I think good things will be ahead of us.
On what he still doesn’t know about this team at 4-0:
I think being able to put — when the pressure is on for four quarters. There’s going to be games as we’re stepping up through the rest of the SEC, you know and I know what we’re going to face, and that’s a real challenge. But we’re going to have to embrace that and when the game is on the line, to this point our guys have stepped up and made plays, but we know competition changes as well.
On improved performances from Barion Brown and Dane Key:
It was good to see them get going. That last one was a big, explosive play by Barion that they reviewed and he got it in. That was good to see because we hit a little rut of frustration there. The nice thing: I think this team is unselfish. But as a competitor, people get frustrated. It’s not all me, me, me, but as a group, you get frustrated. Maybe it’s a tipped pass, maybe it’s a drop, maybe it’s a pressure — there’s enough blame to go around and everybody needs to concentrate on themselves.
On not letting the unusual stuff at Vanderbilt throw them off:
Yeah, I talked about it on Monday. I told them what the situation was. I told them we were going to be in temporary locker rooms. I told them things were tore down, it’s going to be a different stadium with all the construction going on. Our guys didn’t blink. They went into that structure over there and we came out and were really hot. Playing at 11, being on the road, driving 3½ hours, is not always a lot of fun. Our guys handled it really well.
On running game:
Just a little inconsistent again. We popped some. The early one, popping that one was good. We gotta look at it again and see where the negative-yardage plays are coming up. I would imagine there’s some movement involved there. We’re working hard to get that cleaned up. We went to some gap schemes and some other runs that could be more effective. Right now, some of our zone schemes have been inconsistent at best.
On all the slipping:
Yeah, I don’t know. I practiced yesterday on grass, just because of our bus drive and their legs. Probably could’ve went out on our turf, but it is a little different and each surface is a little different.
On if they will keep Eli Cox at center:
We’ll see. I do think we felt better about it as we worked through it last week at practice. A little bit more decisive and the continuity of it — he’s done it. We’ll see how Jager (Burton) played at guard and we’ll have that flexibility. It’s hard for me to say. You saw it and I saw it. Just inconsistent in the run game. This is probably the worst we’ve been in yards per attempt. (Rambling on stats) It’s not terrible.
On Devin Leary bouncing back after mid-game struggles:
Devin wants to perform for his team. It was a rough couple series. In that same little (stretch), before or after, I think he missed a throw as well and that compounds it, you know? Misses a throw, slips, steps on someone’s foot. The nice thing for him and everybody is, like, guys let’s just settle down and get to the next possession. We are a team. And guys went out and responded and got stops when we needed them, and then after that is when we got the ball at the 11 and punched that in, and that was good to see. Very helpful. But to answer your question, I still have a ton of confidence in him. He’s a guy that — you’re going to go through some tough times playing quarterback in the SEC, but he’s resilient and I don’t think he can be rattled. That’s not to say he won’t have some tough times, because he will, but he’ll bounce back.
On winning by 17 despite having 10 penalties:
It was huge. At one point, that one drive late when we scored, we overcame three hugely negative plays — two holds and illegal man downfield — so we converted a third-and-8, we overcame a second-and-20, we overcame a second-and-20-something. That says a lot. I’d like to not see that again. I’d like the to even out someday.