Everything University of Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops said during his press conference following Saturday’s 26-13 win over 25th-ranked Louisville at Kroger Field in the regular-season finale for both teams:
Just really appreciate our football team and their effort and their competitive spirit, competitive nature they’ve had, you know, these past couple weeks.
We all know, again, not going back wanting to be a downer, we had some ups and downs, but most people do. Just about everybody in the country with the exception of maybe one or two teams.
So, you’re going to have some adversity, and our team responded how I believed they would. This game is important. I’ve recognized that from the moment I walked in the door when we had a long way to go and they were a consistent top-10 team or top five at the time or whatever it was when Charlie (Strong) had them rolling.
So, I know it’s important to this state, important to our football players and our staff, and I just really appreciate the way they dug in and competed and finished the season.
It’s challenging, and our team responded the way I had hoped. Felt like we did some really good things in the first half. Penalties were one thing that kind of crept up on us a little bit. Made a few penalties that stalled some things.
Overall, played really solid defense. I think giving up the touchdown at the end of the first half was a big response to go into halftime and come out in the second half and hold them to a three-and-out and get good field position kind of set the tone for the third quarter and put us in pretty good position to feel like you had pretty good control.
I know nothing was completely out of hand or anything, but we felt like we were in pretty good control at that moment and defensively had some big stops. Offensively, was very effective moving the ball. Was good to see us have that physicality in the run game, late in the game, getting the long drive, even though didn’t end up with any points.
From a backed up position, physical, returning the ball, killing some clock and punting it and knocking them out at the 1. The field goal, how about that? It was great to see Ruff (Matt Ruffolo) finish that way, and the holders and the snappers, the whole crew. Special teams really responded.
So, it was a total team effort and good to get that victory.
Question. Mark, do you feel like you finished this game as well as you finished the first game of the season?
You know, my mind is a million places. I can’t really even think about the first game of the season to be honest with you right now. I’ll think about it later.
Q. Both DeAndre (Square) and Jacquez (Jones) made big plays early. What does it say about those guys that they even came back today? Nobody would’ve faulted them.
That’s who they are. That’s who they are. You’re right, couldn’t fault them. The other guys were playing well. But it means something to them, it means something to our team, so them being out there and coaching the guys when they weren’t able to play, you know, coming back and fighting through it today, means a lot.
It’s just who they are. It’s the character, and that needs to carry on with the younger guys in our program.
Q. A lot of people wouldn’t have blamed you if you just scrapped the kicking game the last few weeks? Matt came out there and performed well. Were you ever worried that he might just be done for the year kind of deal?
No, but I think I acknowledged that things happen. I mean, I made the golfing analogy, what, a week ago. I understand. Things happen. I mean, to act like you’re not immune to anything or any pressure or when things go wrong, that’s human nature. I had confidence in him, the team did, and I treated him like we always did.
He missed a kick or two. It’s a snap, it’s a hold, it’s laces. There is a lot of things that go into it. As I mentioned many times throughout the year, was I concerned? Yeah, I was concerned, and we worked on it.
But we had to stay the course and go with the best option we had, and he kicked it really solid tonight. Really good snaps, really good holds, and really good kicks from where I was. You guys could probably see on the TV, but they looked pretty darn good, pretty high.
Q. (Regarding Louisville causing turnovers.) You didn’t turn the ball over. How big was that?
Yeah, I think it was very big, really big. You know, I think it says a lot to our guys and the way we finished there. We had good balance certainly early, and so turnovers were big.
Q. On how it feels to win.
Better than losing.
Q. (About Will Levis) There has been a lot of talk, this is his last game in a Kentucky uniform. What has he meant to this program, especially his toughness that he showed this year fighting through injuries and just all those things?
Yeah, I don’t know whether it is or not. We’ll have some talks and see where he is at. You know, hard to put into words what he’s meant to us, just his, again, toughness, leadership, you know, battling through adversity, having — coming here and having a great year and going through an offensive coordinator change and getting beat up and having a year where he wasn’t at 100%.
He fought through it. He’s a true professional. He set the tone for us here. We absolutely love him, whether it’s his last game or plays one more. I think the world of him, and love what he’s done for us and don’t want anything but the best for him and his future.
Q. You guys have been able to generate a lot of pressure this year, but haven’t quite gotten to the quarterback. How big was that?
Yeah, I thought it was very big, the strip sack, the pressure, making it uneasy on them early. I think got a sack the second play; I thought that was big, just kind of setting the tone there.
I thought just again, they were very solid attacking. Not perfect. We had some plays in there that we would always like to have over defensively, but overall played extremely hard once again.
Q. Mark, how do you prepare for the postseason?
Yeah, right now our guys need a little time. They put this week in here — this week normally would be on the road recruiting tomorrow and then put this few days of a dead period in there to kind of — the idea being to regroup with your team and see where it is with the portal and everything, with the change and the transition and your own team.
So, we got to have some meetings with our players. The players need some time to heal up. Again, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. That’s the last thing I’m worried about right now is who we’re playing. I’m grateful for this victory.
I feel like our team emptied the tank once again, and that’s all you can ask. Right now they need a little bit time of fill that back up.
Q. Chris (Rodriguez)‘s days are numbered in the backfield. What did you see from Jutahn (McClain)?
He has three or four more, doesn’t he, I hope, Chris? He is unbelievable. He played really good, Chris.
Jutahn really played a good game, too. He really did. He had really good vision. Tough runs. Little different change of pace with him in there, but really played well.
Q. You guys have obviously some high impact transfers on top of the homegrown guys. How should the fans remember this senior class, and how much have they meant to you?
That’s up to them and up to you how you write it. I know in there that there is a lot of love and respect for each other. You know, I told the team that last night and several times this week, there is guys that have been in that locker room one year, two years, three years, four years, five, and even six. It’s very strange.
There are guys that have been around forever and there are newcomers, but that’s a team. You know, it’s the way of the new world. There will be change, more change than we’re used to with the rosters and things of that nature.
You have with to adapt and make sure we piece it together the best we can. But just the way they played today you could tell the way they care about each other and wanted to finish strong. I greatly appreciate that, and I know they will as well. Whether they’re planning on hitting the portal or graduating or whatever they’re deciding to do, I know they’ll be proud of the effort that they put in this week to prepare for that game and to go out and win.
Q. DeAndre (Square) joined the 300-tackle club. Talk about him from the time he got here to now.
Yeah, he’s just one of those guys. He loves football, loves the game, easy to coach because he cares. You know, so he’s come a long way. He’s meant an awful a lot to this program and myself and our staff. Just been a mainstay.
Q. How much of today do you think was built off finishing last week and the competitive nature and...
Yeah, I think it’s — again, yeah, I think it means something, you know, to go — the product that we put on the field and how we play, it matters. The preparation matters. Matters to our fan base and to our own team, you know, how we play and what we put into it throughout the week, how competitive we are, how tough we play.
You know, if you’re in the arena and you’re playing you’re going to have some ups and downs, and you got to be able to respond. I felt like that’s what I’m proud of this team. Maybe things didn’t go exactly how we all wanted it to, and certainly there is a lot of things that I could do better and will do better and will work at.
But they hung really tough and finished with a win that we all know we needed to have, we desperately wanted.
Q. What were the emotions like having Chris (Oats) here today?
Yeah, I mean, it means a lot. He was in that locker room, and, you know, the players all loved seeing him and admire the way he’s handled things and how resilient and tough Chris has been. Because you can imagine — well, it’s hard to imagine what he’s gone through and the good days and the bad days, us visiting with his mother and his family and just the struggle that they’re going through.
They greatly appreciate the support of the Big Blue Nation and all the friends and family of this program. It means a lot to us and they felt that love and support for a long time. Our players really love seeing them and know that’s true adversity.
You know, sometimes a long season, you know, you have a tendency to feel down or disgruntled or — that’s real adversity. He’s facing it head on. I’m sure there is ups and downs. I know there is. But we all can learn a little bit from that.
Q. I was going to ask, were you happy with how the offensive line played?
I thought they — yeah, in general, played really well. Effective yards. Wasn’t like there was — you know, I’m looking at it right here. Forty-two (attempts), maybe not overwhelm you or wow you with yards per carry, but if you’re rushing it that many times it means you’re getting some effective yards, and you’re keeping those chains moving and playing for field position and things of that nature. Playing to win the game however you have to, so that was good to see.
Q. What you all did late against Georgia with the 99-yard drive, how does that change your evaluation of the offense over the whole season, or does it at all?
I think we got better. We had to. We all work at that every day, you know. So I want to enjoy this and let everybody enjoy this win. You know, I know there is work to be done and we all know that, so I appreciate the effort and the plan to put ourselves in a position to be successful.
A lot of times that’s what’s — I’ll just leave it there. That’s frustrating as a coach. You heard me talk about through the ups and downs it’s our job to put them in at position to be successful.
We’ve done that at times and at times we haven’t. You put it all together and you get a group of men that play that hard and put them in position like that, you like to see that result right there.
Q. On Zion Childress
You know, he’s just a guy that has a good instincts. He plays a lot. He played a lot of snaps before he got here and played a lot this year. He’s a guy that I agree with you, you see him, you see the flashes. You see him trigger and you saw a great open field tackle a week ago. You saw him flashing together. That is really good to see in a guy that has another year.
Q. Mark, what are your emotions like now that the regular season is over? You kind of alluded to it. It’s not exactly what you guys had hoped for you, but you get a big win over your rival. Exhausted? Happy?
Yeah, of course I’m happy. I’m proud of that group. I’m proud of the men and the way they hung in there and finished. You know, I think there will be time for reflection and looking at everything. There is always what ifs. It’s not like I’m going to live in the what if world all the time, but you have to really look at things and make sure we’re growing and moving the program to where we all want it to be.
You know, there is part of you that could sit there and look at two penalties away, but that’s my job to make sure we don’t have those two penalties or play better to where a penalty doesn’t change the outcome of a game.
That what if sticks in fans’ minds and my mind as well. You know, very easily could control winning a few more, and that hurts, because we all know how competitive this league is. Take a look at it. I don’t know, it’s been wild. But you look at the SEC and the way everybody finishes. There is a lot of people log-jammed in the middle. But there are some elite teams that have played extremely well this year and a lot of guys fighting hard and competing.
So it’s hard. Long winded on that conversation. Right now, I guess it’s called relief to get that victory right there. It’s going to be short-lived. I got to get in to work tomorrow and really take a good look at things and see where we are at and go from there.
Q. Mark, you talked about all — we asked you Monday did you expect the juice to be there after a few losses coming into this rivalry. Was it there all week? Did you see more today going into the game? How was that this week?
I was really proud of the team. I don’t know if it’s the formula. I don’t know what it is, but they seem to respond, you know what I mean? It’s kind of nice the way our schedule is set up. Talk to (Dr. Eli) Capilouto. He’s out there.
They have school off Wednesday, obviously Thursday is Thanksgiving. With Wednesday off gives them a little time Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I don’t know. They got a little rest. We had beautiful weather. They were very energetic. They were committed. They were committed to preparing and having a really solid week to go play well.
You know, I mean, that’s what we have done for a long time. I would be very frustrated if they didn’t respond that way.