The fierce competitor in Stoops, however, loves that UK has an opportunity to earn bowl eligibility against its arch-rival.
“I think the whole staff and everybody’s excited about it,” Stoops said of a regular-season finale against the Cardinals. “We talked about that right after the last game. It’s a beautiful thing as we have this opportunity in front of us to get the sixth victory against a big rival. A lot of people would believe in this state that it’s the most important game of the year, so it’s important and exciting.”
In the first-ever Governor’s Cup to close a season, Kentucky (5-6, 2-6 SEC) limps into the matchup coming off losses of 63-31 to Georgia and 50-16 to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Louisville (8-3, 5-3 ACC) is riding high after a 31-28 win at Notre Dame.
The Cats must contend with a Louisville offense that has posted 30-plus points in four consecutive games -- three of them with freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon moving under cetner in place of injured Will Gardner -- and a defense that ranks No. 7 nationally. The Cards lead the country with 23 interceptions, including 13 by safety Gerod Holliman, who is one shy of the NCAA record.
The big question around Big Blue Nation is whether the Wildcats have anything left in the proverbial tank, and was an open date last week just what the doctor ordered to give UK a fighting chance?
Stoops said getting a break from a grueling stretch of eight consecutive games – including seven straight against the rugged SEC – came at the right time.
“Guys are excited and energized,” he said.
A bowl game once looked more promising after UK began the season at 5-1, but Stoops believes his team is still deserving of seeing its season extended for one more game.
“I think a win this weekend would do an awful lot for these players,” he said. “I think they deserve it. That's what I've told them. They put in the work. They've put in the time and they care and they deserve to win and have that taste of success and that taste of a bowl game. I'd like to see that for them.”
The UK boss is well aware that many will judge his entire second season with the Cats based on whether or not he wins this game this weekend. An upset of the Cards would almost certainly induce sudden-onset amnesia for fans currently grumbling about the losing streak and starting to question the staff for the first time since they arrived in Lexington.
“I'll let you decide on whether it's been successful or not,” Stoops said. “I really haven't put any thought into that, to be honest with you. I know we're a better football team. I felt like that coming into the year that we'd be better. I think we are better. Are we where I want to be? No, and probably not where a lot of people want to be. So we're going to keep on working, and keep on getting better.
“I am proud of this team. I felt like they've been a fun group to coach. They mean well, they work hard, and they have a great attitude. We're just not quite as good as we'd like to be.”
BAKER OUT FOR REMAINDER OF SEASON:
Stoops announced that freshman wide receiver Dorian Baker, who had caught 19 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown in his first season with the Cats, will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury last week in practice. Stoops called it an “unfortunate accident” that occurred without Baker being hit. “He just planted awkward and hurt his knee.”
UK RECOGNIZED FOR ACADEMIC SUCCESS:
The Kentucky program was recognized Monday by the American Football Coaches Association for graduation rate success. UK was an honorable mention selection, marking the sixth time since the award was founded that the program has earned that status. UK was the overall winner in 1989. The award was shared by Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Stanford in 2014.
UK Head Coach Mark Stoops at Monday Press Luncheon...