Ignore Vanderbilt football’s 2-2 record ahead of Kentucky‘s trip to Nashville. Mark Stoops and the Wildcats are. They know Clark Lea and the Commodores are a tough out, as they made clear last season by pulling off a 24-21 victory inside Kroger Field.
One-score losses at Wake Forest and UNLV — the latter coming on a last-second field goal on the road — don’t define the program or this current team. Kentucky has a battle coming this weekend at Vanderbilt.
“Looking forward to the challenge ahead heading to Vandy, a team that beat us a year ago. They’re coming off a very difficult loss,” Mark Stoops said Wednesday. “I have a ton of respect for Coach (Clark) Lea and Vanderbilt, the way he has built that program. I said a year ago on the Wednesday leading up to our game how much I respected how hard they play. Any time you play that hard, you have a great opportunity to win.
“We expect the same thing this week from them, to bounce back and play extremely tough at home. And we’ve got the early start. So we’ve just got to worry about ourselves, have a great week of practice and clean up some things.”
Stoops saw growth in the Wildcats’ 35-3 victory over Akron, the film painting a better picture than he felt in live time. His team needs to be more consistent, specifically on the offensive line, but there was plenty to work with going into SEC play.
“It was an improvement. It’s still aggravating because we had a couple of snap issues to put us behind the chains and we had a holding call that brought back an explosive touchdown pass. So there’s quite a bit of room for improvement,” Stoops said. “It’s always one of those situations when you get back to work on Sunday that it’s never quite as good as you think, but never quite as bad as it felt.
“It felt frustrating watching it on the field in live time, but after watching the film, I definitely see some improvements and a lot to build on. We’ve just got to, with our style and the way we’re pro-style and the number of plays, all of those things, we really can’t squander opportunities. With the play clock the way it is and with our style, the game goes relatively fast. You’re not getting a ton of possessions, so you’ve got to maximize those.”
A few of the clear positives? Start with the defense, which ranks No. 12 overall in college football, allowing just 11.3 points per contest. It is also No. 26 in the nation in yards allowed per contest at 281.7. Brad White’s unit has been stout.
“We’ve given up some yards here and there but the defense has done a nice job of keeping people out of the endzone. That’s the key with points per game and yards and so on,” Stoops said. “I think we improved this past week on third-down efficiency and we’ve got to continue to elevate that and get off the field on third down.”
Then there are the offense’s top threats entering the conference slate, Devin Leary at quarterback and Ray Davis at running back.
“Devin is a guy that I still have tremendous confidence in and he, a lot like a lot of our players, have done some really good things at times. And he’s been fractions off on others,” Stoops said of Leary. “I think he’s gonna get better with every opportunity with each game. We know the competition improves as we head into conference play this week, but we’ve got to play good around him.
“It’s never all on the quarterback, but all eyes are on the quarterback at all times. We have to play better around him at times and that consistency is the word that keeps on popping up.”
“Ray has been a very good player for us, very consistent,” Stoops added of Davis. “He gives us that strong, physical style that we’re looking for, but he also can make some people miss — it’s been evident by the explosive runs that he’s had and explosive catches, as well. Catch-and-runs. He’s made a big difference for us, he has really done a great job being a leader.”
Davis was a thorn in Kentucky’s side last season in Vanderbilt’s win in Lexington, rushing for 129 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Stoops didn’t enjoy watching that film back.
He is, however, excited to have the senior back on his sideline this time around.
“He has played a lot of football in the SEC, so he knows what he’s getting into,” Stoops added. “I’m sure it’ll be a different challenge for him this week. He’s just got to stay within himself and play the game. He knows how to play. It was quite aggravating for me to sit there and have to watch last year’s film and see what he did against us and how well he played. So he’s just got to do what he can he’s capable of and trust his teammates.”