‘We have to embrace that challenge’: Mark Stoops previews Tennessee rivalry game

Weekday broadcast of WYMT Mountain News at 11
Published: Oct. 24, 2022 at 6:44 PM EDT
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HAZARD, Ky. (WYMT) - Coach Mark Stoops discussed the team’s health, the border rivalry and more in his weekly news conference ahead of traveling to No. 3 Tennessee.

No. 19 Kentucky will play in Neyland Stadium on October 9 at 7 p.m., broadcast on ESPN. The league announced today that Kentucky’s Week 10 game at Missouri will kick off at noon.

Weekday broadcast of WYMT Mountain News at 11

Opening statement...

“Obviously, very excited about the opportunity this week to go play an extremely good Tennessee team that is absolutely playing on fire right now. Offensively, playing at an incredibly high level right now with their tempo, their talent, the way they are playing at quarterback, across the board. (They are) Extremely hard to defend and playing extremely well and the same can be said about their defense -- really playing at a high level, getting big-time stops when they need to, getting very good pressure on the quarterback, swarming, playing well in all phases so obviously a big challenge ahead of us. The bye, hopefully, came at a good time for us. Obviously (we) played a very good game the last time we played. We needed some time to heal. Players needed some time to heal up a little bit, getting bruised up throughout the season, getting our legs up underneath us to play a team that’s as fast as Tennessee is in all areas. Looking to get back to work here today and continue our prep here for Tennessee.”

On what Ole Miss’ tempo gave you in order to prepare for Tennessee’s tempo...

“It definitely gave us some prep. We had to work on some of that even in camp and just getting our feet up underneath us and try to work at that tempo because it’s almost impossible for your scout team to simulate anything as fast as they do or execute like they do. Last week and we continue to do it some this week, with good against good with our offense giving us some fastballs – just get our cleats in the ground, execute calls, the urgency of communicating, getting lined up, and just playing ball. We have to continue to work different ways to try to simulate that kind of speed.”

On if the bye week has stifled your team’s momentum...

“I hope not. We’ll see. It is what it is. We have to do our best to prepare the team and I have to find the best recipe to give them some time off, but also work extremely hard, especially with the challenges that we have, certainly in this game and down the stretch here.”

On what challenges Tennessee receivers’ wide splits provides Kentucky’s secondary...

“It does, it kind of forces your hands whether you’re in a split-safety look or a one-high look, so they know whether you’re in two safeties or one. It also creates a lot of space for them, which is obviously what they like. It gives them big windows with some receivers that can really run and a quarterback that’s playing at the level he is and how accurate he is, it gives them a lot of space.”

On if Kentucky receivers help in matching up against arguably the best receiving corps in the country ...

“It’s different. We have to try to use that good against good just to get some of that speed they play at. It’s very different styles of offense but certainly we see very good speed in one-on-one situations. With the combination of the space that they have and the play-action, it puts a different stress on you.”

On how much time you give to self-scout vs. opponent scout during a bye week...

“You have to take a good look at both during the off-week. You have to examine yourself. It’s the only time, you have just a little bit of time, to take a good look at yourself. Again, evaluate the things you’re doing well and try to find ways to continue to feature that and areas you’re falling short and how do you get that fixed and why are you falling short. Take a good look at yourself there as long as you can, with putting work in on Tennessee. Certainly we have to put time in working on Tennessee and getting started on that prep. I would say it’s about equal in the off-week. Today, it gives us a better opportunity to start off faster on Monday, being that the players were off on the weekend and fresh. I’d like to have a really good Monday practice today to eliminate some of that stress from Tuesday and Wednesday, when you feel like you have so much work to get in (during) a normal game week.”

On if you have seen the players “get up” a little more knowing they are going into the No. 3 team in the nation...

“You better. I think it’s human nature when you’re playing a team that’s playing this well, you better play at a high clip, or you’ll get embarrassed. They could play very, very fast, they’re scoring points on everybody. You’re playing the No. 1 offense in the country, you better be locked in and ready to play at a higher level.”

On game management and deciding to be aggressive vs. the risks that come from that....

“It’s a double-edged sword. You could look back to last year, the middle eight (minutes of the game) was an opportunity for us to possibly win that and we give up the three right before the half which is a huge difference in the game. But you have to, I don’t second guess that call. We had an opportunity to convert on third and fourth (down) and didn’t. If you give them any amount of time, as we saw in the Alabama game, or last year vs us at the end of the first half, they can score very, very quickly. You have to be able to manage that the best way you can and I don’t know if there’s any exact answer. You’re dead right if you go for it and make it (laughter), if not you should’ve punted it. I’m sure I’ll be called a dumb (pause) if it doesn’t work one way or the other (laughter).”

On the discipline this team will need going into a game and an atmosphere like it will see Saturday...

“Well, it’s always important, I think when you’re playing the way we have, and not getting behind the chains, and not being able to make up first-and-15 an awful lot and things of that nature, it’s important. It was important when we went on the road and beat a very good Florida team. We were low in penalties in a very hostile environment. It’ll be an even bigger challenge this week with a team that’s playing this well, number three team in the country at their place, over 100,000, extremely loud, so we better have a great week and be very focused and try to cut down on the penalties as best we can.”

On the Tennessee impressive performance this season on run defense…

“They’re big and they’re strong, they’re playing very fast. They really are, they’re playing a very good level defensively. I think it even for them it gets a little skewed because they have to play so many plays. They’re playing very good defense and their front is -- they’re big and they’re active and very physical guys.”

On if you have done anything different this week or if you plan to…

“No, not much. I mean there’s certain little things that do, nothing that deserves print, you know I mean, it is what it is. Part of coaching and getting your team ready and finding the right message at the right time, I don’t know if there’s any earth-shattering tools that you can use other than your team better be ready to play. You better have a very good plan and you better go out and execute and be ready to play at a very high level with great intensity. It’s another challenge and you may hear me say that on repeat, but it’s a challenging league.”

On how much of a rivalry game is this...

“That’s not for me to decide, that’s for you to decide. Every game for us is important, so I’d never – I’ve always been honest with that, I’ve said it’s important, of course it’s important. It’s an SEC East team that we have to go on the road, that’s very close in proximity to us. It’s important.”

On if you put an emphasis on turnover margin in the bye week…

It’s something that we always stress, it’s always important. You can’t win if you’re sloppy with the football. you just can’t. We have a hard time overcoming those type of turnovers, when we put the ball on the ground, and not many teams can. Some can, but for us it’s very important and in a game like this it absolutely will be important.”

On the importance of clock management in the upcoming game…

It’s hard to say. You have to be able to capitalize. You have to be able to make big stops when you have to because ultimately this team’s going to move the ball and they’re going to go fast and they’re going to move the football. You have to try and get some stops. They are extremely efficient in the red zone, that’s pretty obvious if you look at their percentage, I would say 97% or something, darn near perfect of scoring points in the red zone, so they’re going to move the football, you’ve got to be able to get quality stops and moving the ball is important, yes. Third down efficiency is important. The last game we played we converted a couple fourth downs early that I just felt like we needed to continue the drive and I think scoring points, moving the football, of course it’s important. I don’t think it’s ultimately what’s going to decide the game, but possessing the football and with a team like ours, with huddling and going slow, it does limit the opportunities, so you’ve got to be efficient and I think efficient on the racks that you have, the sets that you have. You have to be efficient.”

On Kentucky’s offensive line progress after the bye week…

“Yeah, that was certainly really big for us to be able to run the ball and have the balance that we were looking for (vs. Mississippi State). We are very efficient in that game, definitely one of our better games and we played very good as a team, but the offensive line definitely was much better. They’re definitely improving, I think you heard me discuss it and we maybe had an injury or two, but I feel like there’s times where we’re making progress, starting to get that continuity. Injuries happen, we have to be able to overcome them. I think we’re coming together and certainly getting better.”

On how Will Levis is doing physically after the bye week…

“Will is getting better. He needed some time. Surely there was a couple parts of his body I’m sure that needed some rest and needed some ice, and so he’s getting better.”

On Destin Wade earning a spot on the depth chart at quarterback...

“Destin, we wanted to play him in the game Will (Levis) was out, the South Carolina game, we wanted to get him in there. It was just, again, one of those games where the opportunity just didn’t present itself. I wish it would have for us to see, get Destin in there and give him some play, but he’s been getting better. I think that’s the big thing. Sometimes quarterbacks, everybody thinks it has to come to him right now, and a guy that’s highly recruited like him, but again, it’s a developmental sport, he’s getting better. As long as he keeps that positive attitude and works hard like he is, he’s making really big progress. And, you know, when you recruit a guy like that, there’s a few years that you got to put in, and he’s willing to do that. You just got to put in time. He’s gotten better since day one here, and he just keeps on. He needs to keep on making strides like that. And if he keeps that same approach and put in the work like he is, and good things are going to happen to him.”

On if Kentucky is close to full strength...

“Yeah, I think we’re as good a shape as we’ve been in for several weeks. I don’t know if we’ll be at 100% or not, but we’re getting close.”

On what it is about Tennessee’s wide receiver corps that causes so much chaos for secondaries...

“They have 21 plays for 40 yards or more this year, so that’s pretty explosive. They have 49 plays for 20 or more. So, they’re very good, their scheme, obviously, they have a very good scheme that’s unique to them. With the splits that they have and the space, they’re doing a really nice job of subtle change-ups off their routes. You might be anticipating one thing, but with the space that they have, they are creating some deep shots and the way Hendon (Hooker) is throwing the deep ball very efficient. He’s very, very accurate on the deep pass.”

On how important the start to a game is because it’s difficult to simulate Tennessee’s speed and tempo in practice...

“I think there’s no question early (in the game) is very difficult. There’s no question. So, I think it’s really important for us to not beat ourselves, number one, in trying to do too much and just getting a body on a body and competing. There’s going to be a lot of one-on-one situations that we have to step up and win. It’s important, team defense is important. As always, leveraging football, this team is very efficient in running the ball, I want to 60 (percent) to 40 (run-pass ratio). It doesn’t seem that way with the amount of yards that they’re passing for, but very efficient in the run game as well.”

On the difference between how Ole Miss and Tennessee run their offenses…

“Yes, it’s different. I kind of went through that once already today, but I think it helped us in the preparation, in the urgency of getting the calls, getting lined up, but different offenses, yes. Some things carry over as far as just the communication and urgency and getting lined up and making us practice it and be prepared for it, knowing going into the season, we’re going to play at least two teams that want to go as fast as possible.”

On if last season’s game helps you prepare, emotionally or mentally, for the upcoming matchup...

“It does in the factual part of it. Like just watching the game and seeing the plays that carry over and that part of it does. Year to year, it really doesn’t make a difference. I was asked that question earlier this year with some teams, it’s just like them, it didn’t matter. The previous years didn’t matter for them vs. Alabama, this year is a different, totally new year and new teams. Sure, you look at scheme, you look at the ways you beat yourself or that they beat you and try to improve on those, but last year we played much of the game very efficiently, but certain situations, we fell short. We talked about that all the time. You guys have heard me say that a hundred times, you could play the vast majority of a game very, very good, but you don’t know what situation or what play is going to determine the outcome of the game.”

On if playing a disciplined game is more important in the upcoming game vs. any other game in the season...

“It’s always important, I don’t see how it can be more important. I think it’s always important to play as disciplined as you can, but you obviously got to go take it and win. Obviously, Josh Heupel has done a remarkable job, he’s got his team playing at a very high clip and he’s got them very aggressive. A team like this isn’t going to go give it to you, you have to go earn it and you have to go win it. So, while being disciplined and not beating yourself, and self-inflicted wounds are always important, you also have to be aggressive, and you have to go win.”

(Question not decipherable)

“Without question, you’re not going to beat a number three team in the country without playing good.”

On if you got to know Josh Heupel throughout the years...

“I got to know Josh through the years. He worked for both my brothers (Bob and Mike). I don’t remember the exact year we worked together at Arizona (2005), but coming in, I think he was working for Oklahoma (2004), obviously he played for Oklahoma, great quarterback there and won the national championship and then Mike (Stoops) hired him as one of his early jobs I want to say, and did a great job for us. I think it was one quick year, but, worked at Arizona, and then went back to work at Oklahoma (2006-14).”

On Josh Heupel putting his stamp on Tennessee so quickly …

“You have to give him credit for how fast they’re playing, how fast he turned it, if you will. It’s always been a quality program with great players, there’s no question, but Josh has done a remarkable job. You have to give him credit for what he’s done, the success that he had, the winning that he did both at UCF and at Tennessee. To some extent, no, it doesn’t surprise you, Josh has always been a winner, and the competitive person that he is, obviously he’s done a great job as a head coach at both places.”

On the importance of keeping the defense in good spirits when they face the No. 1 offense in the country...

“I think that’s a great point, you’re definitely going to take some shots. They’re going to get some explosives. You’ve got to try and limit that as best as you can. Obviously, the explosives that we gave up a year ago didn’t help us in the game. Again, you’ve seen them do it this year at an even higher clip, so you can’t just sit back and give them everything in front of you either, like you can against some other teams, because they go so fast and they could rip off chunks, so anything underneath they could catch and run. Even the run game is explosive, so it’s a double-edged sword there.”

On defense being prepared to give up yards…

“Yeah. I don’t think it’s fun for anybody to give up yards, whether you’re an defensive guy or an offensive guy, I don’t think anybody likes giving up yards. I don’t think anybody is capable of completely shutting down this offense.”

On if you enjoy the opportunity to play and compete against a highly ranked Tennessee team...

“Anytime you’re playing top-ranked teams, these guys are ahead of the East with Georgia, great venue, SEC game against a top-three team in the country – big game and a big opportunity. We have to embrace that challenge.”

On what you saw in Brad White when you hired him and how you saw him help Kentucky grow back then...

“I knew when I hired him, I said that day one, that it was extremely important, number one, to develop the talented outside backers that we had in the program and then, number two, he was a big-picture guy. I knew right away that was important to me and to our staff. I’ve mentioned with how complex and how many different styles in college football, you’ve seen it from last game to this game, you see so many different styles. You don’t always see that at the next level. With college football there’s extremes and different styles and I think it’s important to have as many big-picture guys as you can.”

On how secondary has been playing…

“They’ve been playing really good. This is definitely a different and unique challenge. There’s no hiding in this, there’s not a lot of protection in a lot of plays, you’re going to have to win one-on-one matchups.”

On if you watch games during bye weeks...

“If you have time with what you have going on with traveling and recruiting and spending time with your family, that’s important. When there’s time you’re going to watch football if it’s on but I think most of us can understand that time is very limited.”

On preparing your guys for the environment they will see at Tennessee...

“That’s a pretty big question there, How do you prepare them to go do that? I don’t know, do you want to tell me? (laughter) It’s a normal approach for us, we understand it’s a very big challenge. It’s very hard to simulate the tempo as I’ve mentioned and gone in depth many times about that and there’s different ways that we try to do that. The environment is very difficult, we play in this league consistently, so we’re used to playing in these environments but that doesn’t make it any easier. This is a unique challenge this week so we have to learn from the things we did well, areas where we fell short and environments like this, try to offset it as best as you can, much like everyday approach to almost everything we do.”

On keeping the team focused on what it is doing and not getting too caught up in who your team is playing...

“Always a major point for us, we address the situation each and every week, (because) it’s a different situation, right? Coming off a big win, coming off a bad loss, you’re on the road, you’re at home, what situation are we in? Are you perceived to be a big underdog? Are you perceived to be a big favorite? Whatever the situation, it’s always different, that’s something we address, and this week will be no different.”