Kentucky football: Mark Stoops passes Bear Bryant the only way he knows -- the Stoops Way
Kentucky picked up its third win in 5 years over Florida by a 26-16 count Saturday night in Gainesville. And a Gatorade-drenched Mark Stoops popped onto TV with the smile still on his face. ESPN analyst Katie George began, “I know it wasn’t pretty …” and proceeded to ask Stoops about his team’s second-half rally from a 16-13 deficit to a victory that moved Kentucky to No. 9 in the country — a program-high under Stoops and the first time the Cats cracked the top 10 since 2007.
“I thought it was a thing of beauty,” quipped Stoops, with a sideways smile that suggested only a trace of humor.
Stoops opened his UK career 12-24 in his first 3 seasons — admittedly with UK playing many of the early games without the depth one typically finds at even a good FCS team, much less a Power 5 team.
Since 2016, when Stoops took Kentucky to its first bowl since 2010 and forged the identity as a power-running-and-defense master, he’s 49-29.
Saturday was his 61st victory, a memorable one that moved him past Bear Bryant and made him the winningest football coach in Kentucky history.
How did he do that? His way. The Stoops Way.
Stoops has built a 6-game bowl streak, a 4-game bowl winning streak, completed a pair of 10-win seasons, put as many players in the NFL as within memory, and even managed a recruiting class last season that ended up in the top 15 in the nation, per 247sports.
And they’ve done that with plenty of games that might not have seemed pretty.
Saturday was no exception.
Late in the first half, Kentucky trailed 16-7, having given up 3 bone-jarring sacks on their quarterback and allowed him to be pressured into a turnover. Kentucky had surrendered a safety on a snap over the punter’s head, and had a negative total of rushing yards. To say that the outlook wasn’t brilliant in a place where Kentucky has won just once since 1979 would have been an understatement.
Enter the defense. Turning the game around was Jordan Wright, approaching Florida’s Anthony Richardson, leading to deflect a badly-timed throw, but instead of batting it down, grabbing it with 1 hand and returning it to the Florida 6-yard line. Kentucky turned that turnover into a touchdown and trailed 16-13.
Florida’s offense was done.
From there, it went like this: punt, interception, punt, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, end of game.
Kentucky had Richardson completely flustered — and Florida coaches did their young QB no favors. A dual-threat, he only ran 6 times for 4 yards and completed 40 percent of his passes, also gifting a pick-6 to Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith on a 3rd-quarter play that gave Kentucky a lead the Wildcats would not relinquish.
Kentucky had Billy Napier flustered. Twice, his Gators attempted 4th-down conversions on their own side of midfield in a 1-score game. Twice, they came away shaking their heads after Kentucky’s secondary had their 4th-down plays covered like a snug blanket.
Ultimately, Kentucky has had college football flustered. SEC Network analyst Roman Harper’s prediction that Florida would win “handily” because Kentucky was “soft” aged about as well as those Scott Frost for Nebraska governor predictions.
After the win that made him the winningest coach in Kentucky football history, Stoops was predictably humble, praising “all the past coaches from the dog days … ’til now” as well as “great players.”
Saturday was, in every way, typical for Stoops, and his reliance on those “great players” was well-placed.
Kentucky couldn’t have pulled it off without Wright, whose interception was the highlight of a performance that included 6 tackles, a pair of tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble. It couldn’t have thrived without tackle leader JJ Weaver, who had 9 stops opposite Wright. It couldn’t have managed without Smith, who joins Jacquez Jones as a pair of Ole Miss transplants now thriving in Lexington. Or Carrington Valentine, picked on a year ago and now picking up 3 pass break-ups, including the first of the two 4th-down stops in the game’s 4th quarter. Or massive tackle Octavious Oxendine, who had 4 tackles and a pair of hurries of Richardson.
The Saturday night upset under the lights on national TV definitely moved the needle for Kentucky, which surged to No. 9 nationally and showed itself to be a legitimate factor in the SEC race. Was it pretty?
For Florida, not so much.
For Kentucky, it was another Mark Stoops “thing of beauty.”