LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s recent stage fright at LSU hasn’t changed players’ belief that they can handle the national spotlight.
The Wildcats want to make sure they perform better against top-ranked Mississippi State in Saturday’s nationally televised homecoming showdown.
After six games of doing many things right, Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) regressed during a 41-3 blowout loss to the Tigers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Wildcats now aim to regain the execution and poise that helped them play well in previous matchups against the SEC’s stronger teams.
The Wildcats led twice at Florida before losing 36-30 to the Gators in three overtimes, gaining resolve they believe helped them rally twice from 14-point deficits to upset South Carolina.
Kentucky’s challenge is regrouping from the LSU setback against the Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0).
With chances to topple the nation’s best team, stay in contention for the East division title and become bowl eligible, the Wildcats are making sure there are no lingering doubts from that loss.
“We can’t afford to look back,” quarterback Patrick Towles said. “We’ve got a big team, looking forward. … We didn’t execute at any level, at any position. You’re going to get beat by everybody if you don’t do that.”
Kentucky definitely can’t have breakdowns against a Mississippi State team coming off a bye.
The Bulldogs feature dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott, who has led them to the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking and become a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“We’ve been working really hard to defend him this week,” Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said, “but we know they’re a great offense and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
While the Wildcats made mistakes in all phases against the Tigers, things snowballed after special teams miscues dug a 17-3, first-quarter hole. A failed squib kick and subsequent penalty set up LSU’s first touchdown and the Tigers returned a punt 67 yards for another score.
LSU also rushed 51 times for 303 yards in outgaining Kentucky 423-217. Hardest thing for second-year coach Mark Stoops to accept was his players’ lack of focus after falling behind.
Concentration has been an issue at times during Kentucky’s strong start, but Stoops and his staff have gotten players dialed back in and have worked this week to ensure that doubt doesn’t creep back in.
“When you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence,” Stoops said. “So, now we’ve got to make sure they don’t slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control.”
After dropping passes and missing assignments at LSU, coaches have challenged Wildcats receivers in particular to step up their games against Mississippi State. There’s a potential opening against a Bulldogs pass defense allowing 308.3 yards per contest, and leading receiver Ryan Timmons (339 yards) is determined to take advantage.
“They’ve challenged me to pretty much be a playmaker and make more plays,” said Timmons, who caught just four passes for 24 yards against LSU and had a few drops.
“Last game, we didn’t play well as an offense and we needed the wide receivers to step up. I didn’t do that last Saturday.”
There’s another incentive for Kentucky to bounce back against MSU. It’s been a while since the Wildcats have played a significant game at this point in the season, which says a lot about their turnaround.
They’re determined to make the most of it with the nation watching.
“They are playing hard and with a lot of energy,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said this week. There are guys stepping up and making big plays for them when they need them. That is a sign that they have bought in to what coach Stoops is trying to build. …
“When you look at the improvement that they have made, they can compete with anyone.”