Mark Stoops raised Kentucky football's standard. The Wildcats are falling short right now

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — You can watch the video — Shane Beamer celebrating with his South Carolina football team after a win at No. 13 Kentucky on Saturday — and see what the moment meant to the Gamecocks coach.

In part, the 24-14 win at Kroger Field was personal. In a video shared on South Carolina football's Twitter account afterward, Beamer puts on a pair of sunglasses, turns his hat backwards and dances with his team to Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On.” 

It's a clear clap back at Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who in an SEC Media Days appearance on the "Marty & McGee" show compared changing the climate of a program and the culture. The climate part is easy, Stoops said then. You just “change a uniform, talk a little game, dance around, put on some stupid sunglasses."

Stoops would later say he didn't mean it as a dig at Beamer, who'd done the sunglasses-and-dancing bit in another video released just before SEC Media Days.

It was apparent Saturday night Beamer hadn't believed him.

But Stoops said in August he'd been talking about himself as a younger coach, about the way he’d worn “a blue-collar shirt” in meetings or donned a hardhat in his early days at Kentucky. At the time, he was trying anything he could to reinvent a program that hadn't known consistent winning.

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That was a long time ago.

Back then, Stoops scarcely could say his team had failed to meet a standard. There wasn’t yet one to meet. He’s changed that. 

But the thing about raising the bar is that you have to keep clearing it.

After two straight losses, Kentucky (4-2, 1-2 SEC) is falling short.

That's why after Saturday's game Stoops talked about big plays that he called "uncharacteristic" for his defense to allow. It's why he lamented his team's lack of the “sustained intensity that we generally play with”

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It's why, after the fans had filed out of Kroger Field — an exodus that began well before the fourth quarter ended — Stoops sat in the media room and said the Wildcats “have to regroup, and we got to get back to who we are.” 

These were telling talking points. 

There are a host of reasons why the Wildcats stumbled against South Carolina. 

There was the absence of Kentucky’s injured starting quarterback Will Levis, and the inconsistency of his backup, redshirt freshman Kaiya Sheron. There were the special teams miscues that carried over from the previous week’s loss at Ole Miss

Kentucky’s Kaiya Sheron gets sacked by South Carolina’s Sherrod Greene.
Oct. 8, 2022

There was a South Carolina offense — mostly stymied in the first half — that seemed to solve something in the second, shredding the UK defense for 266 yards and 7.6 yards per play after halftime.

Beyond that, though, Kentucky was missing something. 

Something more than Levis. Something less tangible. Stoops saw it. Some of his players did, too.

“Nobody had any energy on the sideline,” linebacker J.J. Weaver said. “Everybody was so laid back. I don’t like that.” 

By contrast, the Gamecocks (4-2, 1-2) had spark to spare. 

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Kentucky helped ignite it on the game’s first play, a misguided attempt at a reverse. Running back Chris Rodriguez and wide receiver Barion Brown mishandled a handoff, resulting in a Rodriguez fumble. South Carolina recovered, returned the ball to the UK 2-yard line and scored on its first play of the game. 

Stoops took the blame for that one. The play had looked good in practice, he said, and though he didn’t suggest it for the first call of the game, he liked it and told offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello so. 

“I probably put that in Rich’s head,” Stoops said. “And I know better.” 

It was the first of many mistakes. Kentucky had procedural penalties. It missed tackles it has routinely made. It allowed six sacks, an issue all season but one Stoops attributed on Saturday in part to the UK offense not playing well around first-time starter Sheron. 

“We’re not great in any area,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to be good as a team. The strength of our team is generally as a team. We weren’t good in that today.” 

It has to get better in a hurry. 

A week ago, after the Cats’ loss to the Rebels in Oxford, Mississippi, Levis said, “We’ve still got everything that we want on the table for us,” and it was true enough. A single loss in the league didn’t do irreparable damage to Kentucky’s hopes to compete with Georgia for the SEC East title. 

But a 1-2 start might. Especially given what lies ahead

“It’s a lot of football left,” Weaver said. “All we got to do is just take this L on the chin and just play the next game.” 

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The next game is against No. 23 Mississippi State, a 40-17 winner Saturday over Arkansas. The Cats get a week off after that, then it’s back into the fire with a trip to Knoxville to face No. 8 Tennessee, which routed No. 25 LSU 40-13 on Saturday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

Given the turn UK's season has taken, both teams look fit to be favored over the Wildcats, with or without Levis. 

But those games always figured to be the kind that swung the season, wins UK needed if it was to improve on what it's already done under Stoops.

Saturday night wasn’t supposed to be a season-shifting moment. 

Kentucky’s coach Mark Stoops greets fans during the Cat Walk Saturday afternoon before the team faced South Carolina.
Oct. 8, 2022

At least not for Kentucky. 

The game carried more weight for the Gamecocks. They were the underdogs winners on the road in the SEC for the first time under Beamer, who called Kentucky “a heck of a program, heck of a team.” 

That's another reason for the South Carolina celebration.

These days, it's chasing Kentucky. And in winning here, it took a leap forward in its pursuit.

It's the kind of step Stoops' teams made in those earlier days, when a single SEC win could carry so much significance.

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With two 10-win seasons in four years, he's changed the culture at Kentucky. As such, this season was always going to need a spectacular finish to be genuinely historic. 

But that was the goal. 

With Levis and Rodriguez returning, surrounded by a core of speedy receivers and paired with a defense long on talent and experience, UK had on paper the sort of team that could clear the high bar it set a season ago.

When Stoops was building Kentucky, bowl wins were the hope, not the expectation. Ten-win seasons were some kind of dream. A decade in, he's changed that. He's set a new standard for what makes a truly great year here.

After the past two weeks, this team might already have fallen short of it. 

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson at bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.