By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats aren’t in a state of panic after opening Southeastern Conference play with two straight losses.
The Kentucky coach assured the team’s fan base — mostly critics — of better days ahead following losses to Florida and Mississippi State, respectively. He said the thought of naysayers giving up on the team four weeks into the season “seems a little crazy to me” and doesn’t see the Wildcats “falling into a losing mentality.”
“We’ve won a lot of football games around here and I thought we were over that,” Stoops said. “I’m disappointed, we accept the criticism, we’re all in this together and it’s not OK with us, either. As a program and organization, we need to find (ways to improve and (find) answers. That’s what we did, get back to work. (It’s) a good football team. … People like to panic and we don’t necessarily panic in our building, we just go back to work and continue to get better.”
The Wildcats conclude their lone two-game road swing of the season Saturday at South Carolina. Like Kentucky, the Gamecocks (1-3, 0-2) have lost their first two conference games, including a 34-14 setback at Missouri last week in Columbia.
Despite South Carolina’s slow start, Stoops said the Gamecocks are better than their record indicates.
“I guarantee you they’re the best 1-3 team in the country,” Stoops said. “There’s no doubt about that. They’re a talented group and very good players.”
Aside from ending a two-game losing streak, Kentucky’s main focus this week is the health of starting quarterback Sawyer Smith, who played the second half of the loss to the Bulldogs with a banged-up shoulder and a wrist issue.
“He was definitely sore (Sunday),” Stoops said. “He wouldn’t have been able to throw any passes at all. We need to see how he recovers in the next couple of days.”
If Smith is slow to recover and unable to play Saturday, the next option for the Wildcats is current second-string signal-caller Walker Wood, a graduate of Lafayette High School in Lexington practiced with the team last year and redshirt his freshman season after enrolling in 2017.
“Walker is an extremely hard worker,” Stoops said. “He knows what to do with the football and he has worked hard coming off his surgery to compete and play at the highest level he can. We’re confident with Walker and we’ll also have to look at some other options and some other guys as well.”
Stoops has moved back-up kicker Matt Ruffalo to first string on the depth chart. Ruffalo, a junior, booted a 29-yard field goal in last week’s loss to the Bulldogs. Stoops said Chance Poore was limping after getting hit following a field-goal attempt last week. Poore has made 3-of-7 attempts this season and missed two of those last week against the Bulldogs.
‘We’ll go with Ruffalo to start the week,” Stoops said. “Chance’s leg hurt after he got hit. He’s a little banged up.”
Stoops said the Wildcats “just didn’t play a clean football game” in a 28-13 loss to Mississippi State last weekend in Starkville. Stoops said his team’s defensive performance was “one of the worse games we have played in a while as far as far as being precise in our fits and we weren’t as physical.”
“It’s not just a physicality issue,” Stoops said. “It’s also about the precision, executing our defense and doing their job. We weren’t very detailed in executing the defense last week.”
The Kentucky coach added it was a bad outing from top to bottom and in all phases of the game.
“We got off to a bad start and really didn’t play sharp in any area, offensively, defensively or special teams,” Stoops said. “We need to improve. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. … it’s another big challenge this week. We have a lot of work to do and we’re excited about getting back to work.”
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Gametracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.