LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky gets a much-needed break this week and the timing of a bye couldn’t have been better for the Wildcats who have lost three straight games since starting quarterback Terry Wilson suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.
Backup Sawyer Smith has collegiate experience, but the grind of playing in the Southeastern Conference has taken its toll in his three starts this season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops welcomes a week off after Smith took a beating in losses to Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina, respectively.
“I love this team and these guys are going to fight,” Stoops said. “We’re in the midst of a tough stretch. We need the bye, we’ve got to get healthy and we need to hit the reset button, go back and fight our way out of this. There is only one way to do that — we’ll do it. We’ve been in worse situations before and we’ll continue to stick together, get better and find options. That’s all you can do.”
Kentucky senior receiver Ahmad Wagner agreed with his coach and added the players are committed to rallying around each other to save the season.
“We’re not going to panic,” Wagner said. “We believe in each other and believe in our coaching staff and each player. We know we’re capable of climbing out of this hole, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The second half of Kentucky’s conference schedule is more favorable, with games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri remaining on the slate. The Wildcats need just four more wins to obtain bowl eligibility but the window of opportunity is getting smaller. The only possible win out of reach for the Wildcats is a matchup against Georgia in three weeks. The rest of them are possible victories if the Wildcats can get back on track starting with Razorbacks in less than three weeks. In addition, four those last seven games are at home.
“We’ll be glad to get back home, that’s for sure,” Stoops said.
The open date gives the Wildcats not only a chance to get healthy, but also allows Stoops and his staff a chance to explore more future options, especially at quarterback if Smith is unable to perform at full speed in the foreseeable future. All-purpose performer Lynn Bowden alternated with Smith in the pocket, while Walker Wood keeps waiting in the wings.
“I love Walker (Wood),” Stoops said. “He gives it everything he has. He has gone through two shoulder surgeries himself.”
Stoops is not limiting his choices on changes to just the quarterbacks.
“We’ve got to look at all options,” Stoops said. “We definitely always have to look at all options and find ways to put our kids in a position to win games. Sometimes you feel hand-cuffed with what you’e got and it is what it is. We have to look at all options, coach them and put them in a position to be successful. We’ve got to find other guys and continue to develop guys and bring guys along.”
Stoops hasn’t ruled out playing redshirt freshmen this season, either.
“With the four-game rule, they’ve been here five games now and maybe there are some guys that can help us, give us some snaps and we can help develop them,” Stoops said. “We have four games to play with that rule. We have to look at all options.”
In order for Kentucky to get back on track, the Wildcats can’t afford to rely on the passing game to come to the rescue, but instead need to establish the run and create more balance in offense. Chris Rodriguez could see more action down the road following his impressive performance late against the Gamecocks.
“We do have to get back to the run game, being physical and having a physical presence to take some pressure off, but it comes from good as a team — getting stops early and letting us play ahead (of the chains),” Stoops said.
The top priority for the Wildcats is to look forward and regroup when practice resumes Tuesday.
“I don’t want to see any finger pointing and I want guys to pick themselves up,” Stoops said. “There’s no time to feel sorry (for yourself). It’s probably a good time for them to get a (couple of days off). I’m confident they will (regroup).”