Here’s what Mark Stoops had to say after Kentucky held off Missouri in SEC opener

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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops met with reporters following the Wildcats’ 35-28 victory over Missouri on Saturday, a Southeastern Conference opener that saw Chris Rodriguez run for more than 200 yards with four total touchdowns, along with another great performance from Wan’Dale Robinson (174 offensive yards).

Here’s everything Stoops had to say after UK won the game to improve to 2-0 on the 2021 season (and 1-0 in the SEC).

Opening statement: “Thank you. I’d like to first recognize the heroes day today before I get into talking about the game. But just, you know, today, 9/11, just greatly appreciate all the folks that are on the frontline that work their tails off for us day in and day out. So thank you. I’d also like to recognize the stadium and the fans. I thought it was a wonderful — it was just an awesome atmosphere. It’s been a while since we had an atmosphere like that. And thank you. We need it. Our players deserve it.

“You could tell they worked extremely hard. It’s my job to get it a little cleaner. We’ll do that. You know, we have to finish off people, you know, much better. We had an opportunity at the end of the first half to really take full control. That didn’t happen. But I was absolutely pleased with the way we started the second half. You talk about the middle eight, we had a chance to really put a knife in them. Let them off the hook. They put the dagger in us at the end of the first half with the touchdown. And we come back, they get the ball, we get an interception and go right down and score. Big part of the game.

“Really appreciate our players facing that adversity that happened at the end of the first half and once, again, responding. And so, I thought we did so many good things. It’s a shame that, you know, that it had to be so close. Because we had opportunities to pull away. We have to clean that up. We have to get better, and we will. You know, once again, there’s no excuse for fumbling the ball on the 6-inch line. No excuse to get a field goal blocked. You know, would I have to liked to have gone for it there, but if we make the extra point — you know, make the field goal, you know, essentially ice the game. And it’s been a while since we had one blocked, I believe. So we got to get that fixed.

“But proud of our team and our coaches. They did so many good things. You saw that. It was very evident today. We challenged our team to be excited to play. They were. I felt like we were extremely physical. Once again, we had an opportunity to do — we had some really good drives there. And defensively, they had us on our heels. Give them credit. They did a lot of good things, you know, with Connor (Bazelak) at quarterback, they keep you off-balance. And we did a nice job. But we rose up and made some stops when we had to. So overall great team victory. We’ll enjoy it tonight and get back to work and try to get to 3-0 next week.”

What do you say about your program making those kind of mistakes and still being quality?

“Yeah, I think that says a lot. Because, you know, you saw spurts out there tonight where we did some really — we were pretty good. And, you know, I just got to get some things ironed out. I mean, we just got to get a better killer instinct. You know, when we have an opportunity to ice it and, you know — like I said, I don’t want to single out any one guy. But some of those things are just really pissing me off. You know, we can’t fumble the football. There’s no excuse for that. And we got a chance to really put a fork in them. You know what I mean? And you can’t do it.”

On the start of the second half ...

“Well, you know, I think starting the second half, we challenged them. Because it’s easy to lose momentum right there. Because you feel like you’re in total control and it gets flipped in what, 1:56? And so for us to respond like we did in the second half, first possession says a lot. I mean, we knew we were here for a game. We knew that. You know you’re playing a quality opponent. You know you better strap it on for four quarters. And, you know, we were prepared for that. And that’s what we did. You know, that was one of the last things I said to them walking out before the game started, was absolutely. Because we were excited to play. And we went up 14. And I was, like, ‘Be prepared for a four-quarter game’”

It felt like there were a couple — they were getting aggravating yards and you were taking your shots on third downs.

“We what?”

On Missouri’s offense ...

“We did. We got some — we were having a hard time. You know, they were just — it was aggravating yards. They were keeping us off balance. Some of those guys are big. They got some big receivers. We got to get up and challenge them better and not give them such, you know, easy throws. And then (defensive coordinator Brad White) started mixing it up. We started rolling and, you know, clouding certain things and not giving them such clean looks. And that helped.”

We saw more of (quarterback Will Levis’) legs tonight. Is that something that you thought you would see?

“Well, you know, it’s just — you know, there was a couple reads in there. And that was just a scheme and a play that we had the ability to read it. And, you know, I thought he did a nice job of pulling it there late during that long drive we were having toward the end of the game.”

He doesn’t seem like he wants to slide. What does that mean?


Do you think he’s thinking about sliding?

“Well, I saw him at halftime icing up his shoulder. So he better learn to slide a little bit because we’re going to play some more big boys here. But he’s a tough kid. You can see he’s put together. You know, he works out extremely hard and he’s a tough guy. And he made some tough yards. And you know what, your team and fan base kind of rally around guys like that. You know, they got to get some tough yards when you need them.”

Talk about the missed yardage in the run game last week when you all went down there. How much of that was a focus?

“Yeah, I’m just looking here and, you know, we rushed for 340 yards. That’s pretty impressive. And, you know, there was a lot more — you saw that. (Quarterback Will Levis) pulled it down and scrambled some. He — I don’t know how many sacks he had. But with — when you look at it and you look at opportunities, we called a lot more than that. And he scrambled quite a bit and so on. But, you know, the only time we went in total grind mode was the end of that first half. And we were moving the ball. It was crazy not to. And, you know, again, you heard me talk about it last week, if I could borrow it from (former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry) again, you know, scratch where it itches. Why take them off the hook? If they weren’t going to stop it, why stop? And we drove it straight down the field and we should have, you know, killed clock. And, again, had a great chance to ice it — you know, not ice it, but get a big lead there.”

(Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak) was good. I mean, some poise, the guy was so smart, and he was able to kind of get outside on you all the time. Why was it so difficult to contain him?

“Well, it’s aggravating. You know, a couple times we had three-man rushes. That, you can understand. There was several times we had spies on him. You know, we had guys injured. And, again, I’m not making any excuses. But we had some critical guys that couldn’t play late and that are more experienced at some of the things we were doing. And we’ve got to get that better. We’ve got to do a better job. There are certain times where the spy, you know, should have been all over him. There are certain times when games, you know, got to come around. And, you know, I’ll have to see it all. But there was a combination of things.”

On wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson’s toughness ...

“I mean, you can’t say enough good things about him, really. Just, you know, so tough. Took shots, just bounces back up. You know, makes — the long pass he had that he — that was a — you know, both — you know, two long passes were critical that he hauled in today that weren’t easy catches. You know, those are difference makers. You’ve heard me talk about it in here for a long time. You got to have guys that can make some big-time plays. And it’s nice to have him on our team.”

Did you think it was targeting?

“I couldn’t — I cannot at all understand why, you know, it wasn’t. I need an explanation. I will not be giving you that explanation. I like — I don’t want to spend that money on that, you know? So I won’t tell you. But I can tell you they’re going to say he didn’t hit him in the head.”

How do you think the offense has come along? Because there for a good stretch, you guys were running the ball so well. In that second half when you guys had some third-and-longs, still able to convert and move the sticks when in years past, that hadn’t been the case.

“Yeah, that’s true. I mean, we were effective in the pass game early on in the first half. When I looked at the stats at halftime, it was — it was — you know, something was whatever it was, five and nine, or something to that effect. Obviously, getting pulled quite a few down when they were covered. You knew they were playing an aggressive style. I told you that. So you knew going into the game. And there were times when they did cover us up and had to pull it down and escape. And (quarterback Will Levis) ran for some positive yards at times. And that was good. But, yes, it is nice to have that ability and that balance to be able to throw the ball.”

Are you looking for more turnovers on defense? Do you need to do something schematically there or do you need more individual plays like Jacquez (Jones) made when he pulled it in?

“I mean, it’ll happen. Like, last year, we were so far plus, that when you look at the experts, they’re like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to have that many again.’ You know, what I mean? You know, sometimes it bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t. We do the same thing. So we were incredible last year. You know what I mean? We got to make some plays. I mean, we had one right in our hands. You know, you got an opportunity to ice the game, I mean, tell me how to teach them to catch that. You know? We’ll do it.”

On Chris Rodriguez Jr. ...

“But you know Chris and I know Chris. And he came back and he’ll be a beast. And he’ll play hard. And I have all the confidence in him. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to correct him. And, you know, he will. He’ll get it fixed. And he knows. He knows better.”

Mark, how do you think the team tackled this evening?

“I thought we missed way too many plays — tackles in the flats. And, again, when you hear me talk all these years, when do you miss tackles? When you’re out of position. You know, and that’s when you miss tackles. When we tackle great, we have a bunch of guys in really good position. Now, some people stretch out. And, you know what I mean, that’s part of it. And they got really good players and make you miss in the flats. And that’s going to happen. How many times do we make people miss, too? You know, it’s part of it. But, again, it’s a team defense. When you have guys in great position, you tend to not miss as many tackles.”

On Wan’Dale Robinson’s route running ...

“You know, he’s very knowledgeable. And, you know, he’s hard to get hands on. You know, he has that ability to make himself skinny and not give his chest up and, you know, get off some press. And that, we need. That was a huge play. That was third down, if I’m not mistaken, that long one he caught there. I mean, we’ve just missed that. You know what I mean? And Will (Levis) threw it a tad under, but he couldn’t miss that throw. You know what I mean? I mean, he couldn’t go for the perfection right there because he had him beat so bad, you had to convert. So that’s why once in a while, those are — you’d rather have him a yard underthrown because you’re still going to convert it than just trying to hit him right in stride. You know what I mean? You just can’t miss. You can’t overthrow that. And so that was the same with Josh (Ali) when we talked about it last week. You know, he was smart to underthrow that by 1 yard. It was still a touchdown. You overthrow it, it’s incomplete.”

Obviously, none of it matters without the skill, but when you talk about the way Will (Levis) runs, the way (Chris Rodriguez Jr.) runs, the way Wan’Dale (Robinson) pops up after taking that shot and waving to the crowd jumping up and down. How much does attitude play a factor for you guys when you have a group of guys that have that sort of I guess you’d say junkyard dog kind of mentality?

“Well, that’s the first thing we talk about in our program. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and tell you about the poor pillars of this program, this or that. I don’t talk about pillars, but I talk about attitude, toughness, discipline and pride. And attitude is the number one thing we talk about. So you better have an attitude or you’re not going to play here. So I love seeing it. I love the way he — you know, I love their effort, you know? And, again, it was my job to — it’s my job to get them ready each and every week. And they certainly responded today. They were ready to play. Maybe a little over anxious at times. But we’ll find that right slot. Our best football is in front of us.”

Mark, it seems like the only time we mention Chris (Rodriguez Jr.) is due to the fumbles. He did pretty good otherwise. Do you think that’s a sign that we take him for granted too much?

“Yeah, you’re right. He had, what, 206 yards. Yeah, I guess he got that fixed. I mean, those are the type of kids we have in our program. You know, they understand. It’s not about any of us in — you know, any individual. You know, it’s for the greater cause. And, you know, he understands that. Hey, we lean on him. We need him. And, you know, late in the game there, he needed a breath, and I was, like, “We need you, man. We need you. Come on, horse. Come on.” And luckily, there was a TV timeout. I think they had somebody hurt.”

On Missouri running back Tyler Badie ...

“I mean, no, he’s a good — he’s a really good player. He’s got really — he’s really explosive. And they — they had 140 net yards rushing. You know, probably a little less than they want. Because they usually are balanced — like, more balanced than that, as well. But they were effective throwing the ball. So I’m not questioning them. They certainly moved the ball on us better than a lot of people lately and kept us off-balance. But it starts with their run game, as well. You have to respect it. And, fortunately, we kept on getting some leads which probably led to them being a little more in the pass category. But it’s not like we’re stopping them all the time either. But I am proud of our defense. We made some critical stops when we had to.”

On leaving points on the field ...

“Well, I would have to liked to have gotten that field goal at the end. And, you know, like I talked about the one at the end of the half, we got to — we can’t leave points on the field. I mean, we had a chance to — what did we score, 35 and it should have been 45, right? And, you know, we legitimately — you know, got to say as far as (offensive coordinator Liam Coen) is concerned, the offense to me, they scored 45. You know, they didn’t but they did a good enough job to.”

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