By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON —Kentucky is two wins away from becoming bowl eligible with four games remaining. Instead of looking at the big picture, Mark Stoops is taking it one week at a time.
“We look at it as the last stretch here with the four games and we’re worried about going 1-0, that is the big message for us,” the Kentucky coach said. “Let’s put everything into it and go 1-0 this week. The six games or anything, we don’t even really acknowledge that. We want to win a lot more than six.”
Kentucky (4-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) can make the task attainable with a win over Tennessee Saturday. The Volunteers (4-5, 2-3) started the season with one win in five games, but has rebounded and won three of their past four contests, including a 30-7 victory over UAB last weekend.
“If you look at them, like a lot of us, you have to play good as a team, and sometimes it’s just a matter of play here or a play there, and you look at their early games, and that was certainly the case, a play here or a play there and the outcome is different,” Stoops said.
A year ago, a rare underdog, the Volunteers defeated the Wildcats 24-7 in Knoxville. Kentucky was ranked No. 11 at the time and Stoops is still scratching his head over the setback.
“I don’t really want to go back there,” he said. “I beat myself up long enough about that a year ago, so we’re on to this year, but definitely, you need to learn each and every time you get an opportunity to learn and grow, you have to use that as well.”
Kentucky is coming off a bye week and defeated Missouri 29-7 in its last outing on Oct. 26 at Kroger Field. The Wildcats have won two of their past three games and much like the Volunteers, rebounded from a slow start.
“(They are) a team that has kind of changed its identity a little bit,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Obviously with the injury at quarterback, (they) had to revamp a little bit what they were doing offensively. Eddie Gran has done a really, really nice job on the changes that he has made there.”
Kentucky’s biggest task will be controlling the line of scrimmage against a Tennessee defense that allowed just 63 rushing yards against UAB and has collected 13 interceptions in nine games. The Vols held Alabama to a season-low in points, passing yards and total yards in a 35-13 setback to the Crimson Tide last month.
Former Kentucky assistant coach Derrick Ansley serves as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Stoops hasn’t been surprised by the Volunteers’ improvement under Ansley’s watch this season.
“Derrick is a really great coach, doesn’t surprise me that his unit is getting better and better as the year is going on,” he said. “You can see them playing extremely hard, competitive, very sound in what they are doing. Derrick is doing a good job and (they are) playing better and better as the season has gone on there.”
Kentucky’s defense, especially the secondary, also has improved. The Wildcats have limited their past three conference foes less than 305 yards for the first time since 1979. During that stretch, opponents are averaging just 16 points per game.
“We have to make tons of strides in all three phases to give us an opportunity to have success Saturday night,” Pruitt said. “It will be a hostile environment, so we are looking forward to the challenge. But Kentucky has a team that is really talented and playing really well right now and we will have to be at our best to have a shot Saturday.”
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Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, 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.