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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky coach Mark isn't happy that his team's sixth victory has suddenly become elusive.
Once on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible with a 5-1 start, the Wildcats (5-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) have lost consecutive conference games to LSU, top-ranked Mississippi State and Missouri. In comes No. 17 Georgia (6-2, 4-2) on Saturday, smarting from an upset loss to Florida that knocked the Bulldogs from the national championship picture and down to second in the SEC East.
Three opportunities remain for Kentucky to reach that six-win bowl eligibility plateau and Stoops believes his team can reach it if players shed bad habits such as missed blocks and tackles and wrong route-running that have contributed to the slide.
Granted, Kentucky's deficiencies shown during its strong start suggested this program remains a work in progress for the second-year coach. He just wants the Wildcats to avoid regressing when they have a chance to move forward.
"I don't know if we've lost our way, we just need to be better," said Stoops during Monday's news conference that made it clear he was still bothered by Saturday's 20-10 loss at Missouri.
"We're inconsistent. The wheels aren't falling off; we've barely had them on."
After hosting Georgia, Kentucky travels to Tennessee and has a bye before closing the season at in-state rival Louisville. Though the Wildcats aren't close to the point of expecting victories like their successful basketball team, their final two games are winnable.
Kentucky's determined play against Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State also reflects the program's changing mentality that gives players hope against Georgia. Stoops wants to see their assuredness turn into execution again after a frustrating loss that had him promising to get players' attention in practice.
Asked how he will address his team, Stoops brought laughter when he answered, "that will be for them to figure out. You can stand out in the street and you'll hear."
Kentucky was outgained 320-258 and allowed Missouri to hold the ball nearly nine minutes longer despite running just six more plays (78-72). Quarterback Patrick Towles threw a touchdown pass but had his second-lowest yardage total this season (158) in completing just 19 of 37 attempts; he was sacked three times and intercepted once.
Third downs were most telling on both sides of the ball as the Wildcats converted just 2 of 16 chances while the Tigers made 10 of 20.
It's about "mentally being tough," the coach said, describing Kentucky as untrained at times. "If you're supposed to run a six-step out, run it six, not eight. If you're supposed to follow the guard on a run play, follow the guard, not just run anywhere you want to run.
"It's creating those habits and training to play when you're under pressure. When we're under pressure, our habits come right to the surface and they're bad habits."
Kentucky can't afford those same mistakes against Georgia, which features the SEC's top scoring offense (40.5 points per game) despite being held to a season low in Saturday's 38-20 loss in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs also have the conference's third-best rushing offense (250.2 yards), a power attack currently led by Nick Chubb (725 yards, 6 TDs) with star back Todd Gurley suspended.
Beating Georgia will be challenging for Kentucky no matter what given its recent history. But by doing the little things, the Wildcats can give themselves chances against the Bulldogs — and perhaps earn that all-important win.
"I think we're better," Stoops said. "Are we there? (Have) we arrived? Absolutely not. The guys we compete against, you've got to do it right all the time or we've got no chance."