"Very disappointed in the loss, in the way we performed," the UK head coach said during his Monday press luncheon. "We need to get to work. We need to coach better. We need to play better… There's enough blame to go around with everybody, and there's a lot of work to do, so just anxious to get back on the field and get going."
Kentucky has begun preparation for its home opener on Saturday against Miami (Ohio), but many fans are still having a hard time digesting what they saw last weekend in Nashville.
Asked if he was concerned about losing some of the momentum he had built with the fan base after a dubious debut, Stoops said: "I understand the momentum that we had – and have – and I understand that it's a quick trip. People are going to jump off that bandwagon quick, so that's alright. We're not worried about all that. We're worried about getting better, win or lose. I said that to the team: win or lose, back to work on Sunday. We know we have to improve."
Lost in the excitement of an impressive recruiting class in February, more highly-regarded prospects committing for 2014 and a tremendous turnout for the annual Blue-White Spring Game was the fact that UK did not return an abundance of talent from last year's 2-10 team. The program is still at least two years away, minimum, from fielding a competitive SEC roster, a reality that Stoops must tread upon lightly.
"We know where we're at," he said. "I'm not going to sit here and say bad things about our players. I'm going to take the responsibility to put them in a position to win. But we've got a long way to go. Anyone who doesn't understand that has got some issues that we need to sit down and talk about."
There's a difference between being disappointed and discouraged, Stoops added. He even borrowed a bit from UK basketball coach John Calipari's mantra during his troubling 2012-13 season.
"I'm not discouraged," he said. "I'm anxious to get back out there today, and I know the team will. That's just it. There's no easy formula. There's no easy switch. There's no magical scheme on either side of the ball that we can do overnight. We just got to get back to work and handle it with the right attitude and embrace it and get better.
"We accept where we're at. We will get better. We will move forward as a program, I promise you that."
SIGNS OF PLAYMAKERS:
Somewhat lost in the sting of a season-opening loss to an in-state rival was the UK offense's ability to break some big plays against the Hilltoppers, a trait that was almost non-existent last season.
The Wildcats got a 49-yard run from tailback Raymond Sanders, a 50-yard run by quarterback Jalen Whitlow, a 27-yard pass from Maxwell Smith to tight end Anthony Kendrick, a 33-yard run by receiver Ryan Timmons on the jet sweep, and a 34-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Demarco Robinson.
"I thought we did a nice job of creating some explosive plays," Stoops said. "… We'll get more as we go, I think. Javess (Blue) is a guy who can create some big plays. Timmons. Just like we thought with Jalen and Raymond. And there's some others."
The Cats were down a playmaker in the opener. Although he attempted to play a few snaps and caught one pass for a loss of one yard, freshman receiver Alex Montgomery was unable to show the explosiveness the coaching staff had raved about during fall camp.
"He was sick as a dog when we left (for Nashville)," Stoops said. "Very sick. He came back. Our people worked extremely hard to get him on the field, but he was not up to full strength. I would have liked to have seen him go a little bit, too."
Kentucky came out of the opener relatively injury-free, although backup long-snapper Kyle Budde was injured while covering a kick. He'll require surgery and will miss the remainder of the season.
The Cats are also waiting for the return of sophomore cornerback Cody Quinn, a projected starter who missed the opening game with an ankle injury that has sidelined him for almost four weeks.
"We're trying to get him healthy," Stoops said. "We put him back out there (in practice) last week, and we thought he was going to be able to go. He had a minor setback. He's close again, but I don't know where he's at. Right now he's not able to practice full go."
Quinn was not listed on this week's depth chart. Fred Tiller and Nate Willis are listed first-team with Eric Simmons and Jaleel Hytchye backing them up.