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Is Arkansas a make-or-break game for UK?

Sawyer Smith and his UK teammates may need to learn how to be winners. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

In sports, if you want to win games you have to be a winner. I know that seems obvious but hear me out for a minute. Let’s take the University of Kentucky Football team.

Most fans expected this year’s team to have a season that was close in performance to last year’s team. Sure UK lost some very talented players but they had a lot of very talented players just waiting for an opportunity to perform. Make no mistake Benny Snell, Josh Allen, Bunchy Stallings, Lonnie Johnson, Mike Edwards and several other players were all very talented. But they also knew how to win.

What does it mean when a player “knows how to win?” Does it mean they are great in recognizing coverages or they are familiar with offensive schemes or personnel packages that tip them off to what their opponent is doing? Or maybe it means they spend more time watching film and learning their technique for their position than they do on social media? Or it could be that even though they are emotional players they can control those emotions and focus on the play – every play – during the game which allows them to avoid costly, stupid penalties that hurt their team.

Here’s what coach Mark Stoops said about being a winner, “You have to have a mentality about you. You’re not going to walk on the field against anybody and think you are going to have some walk in the park. I think every week when you go (to play) in the SEC, you better be strapped up and ready to play. You know that but just talking about it and going out and doing it are two different things. We have to be prepared.”

And that’s one thing the Cats have not looked like for each game after the Florida game — prepared. And I know, some of it has to do with injuries and inexperience. I understand that. As disheartening as the Florida loss was I realize that Sawyer Smith and the offense played great until he started to get banged up against the Gators. Combine that with a shoulder injury against Mississippi State and it only compounded  the problem.

But then again Sawyer Smith is only one player. What about the other 21 players on the field? Stoops hasn’t had kind words to say about his defense, something I know, as a defensive-minded coach, he takes great pride in. He said concerning UK’s recent defensive efforts the last few weeks, “It’s not just a physicality issue,” Stoops said. “It’s also about the precision, executing our defense and doing their job.”

So knowing that it takes winners to win football games, how do you get there? Stoops said, “Really we have to have great preparation. We have to have a great week. We have to win this game throughout the week. I have to do a better job motivating them and getting them ready to play.”

And I think so far in the 2019 season that is what has kept this team from performing like last year’s team. It takes preparation, everyday, guys being dedicated to the process and players and coaches being on the same page. We haven’t seen enough of that this year.

But with the Arkansas Razorbacks coming to town on Saturday it gives the Cats their next opportunity to show that they really are winners. The coaches need to coach better, the players need to play better and the fans need to continue to show up in droves. And even though UK is 2-3 and 0-3 in the SEC  they still have an opportunity to have a good season. But winning the next game against Arkansas is important; critical, in fact.

Mark Stoops can downplay the game all he wants – and did – by saying, “I don’t care who we’re playing, what we’re doing, the way we lead up to a game, the way we prepare, all that is really most important to me.” Then he went on to say, “It’s the next game, it’s at home, it’s a conference game, so it’s important.”

But it’s more than that. On paper, outside of UT Martin, Arkansas should be the weakest team that Kentucky faces for the rest of the season. If they cannot pull out a win against the Razorbacks at home it is doubtful they can beat the likes of Missouri, Tennessee, Vanderbilt or Louisville.

So this is make or break week for Kentucky. If they win they have a chance to salvage the season. If they lose, in all likelihood we will see that this team, as talented as it is, is missing key leadership on the offense and defense and still doesn’t know how to win.

And that would be tough to swallow after watching one of the winningest Kentucky teams of all time play last year.

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