By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky is one win away from bowl eligibility. The Wildcats can accomplish that feat with a win over UT Martin Saturday in the first of two final regular-season games.
Although a heavy favorite Saturday, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said the Wildcats (5-5) can’t overlook the Skyhawks (7-4), who went undefeated at home this season and finished with a 6-2 record in the Ohio Valley Conference.
“It’s about us right now and our preparation and seeing how good we can be,” Stoops said earlier this week. “We’re interested in playing good this week but also interested in continuing to grow as a program and organization to get better. That’s always the message with us. I don’t care if we are playing a team where we are a favorite or if we’re an underdog, there’s no difference. It’s about respecting the game and respecting the preparation and challenging ourselves.”
The Wildcats bounced back from a disappointing loss to Tennessee last week with a ground-grinding 38-145 win over Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference finale. Kentucky rushed for 401 yards and limited the Commodores to just 198 total yards on offense.
“We went down 14-3 and I was very proud of our team, and their response, and they were coached to do that all week and they responded that way,” Stoops said. “This week, it’s about us and our preparation and how good we can be and being very detailed in our prep and our mindset.”
In his fifth start at quarterback, Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game, while Chris Rodriguez rushed for a career-high 139 yards and Kavosiey Smoke accounted for 123 all-purpose yards against the Commodores. Bowden has rushed for 723 yards over the past five games, the most by a Kentucky player against five conference foes.
“They have a quarterback that is willing to run — not just a willing runner, but a can be a dynamic runner,” UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said. “That makes it very tough on us. I don’t think we’ve faced that this year.”
UT Martin has recorded just one win in 27 tries against FBC opponents. The Skyhawks defeated Memphis 20-17 in 2012, but haven’t been as successful during the last seven years. Kentucky dealt UT Martin a 59-14 setback in the last meeting between the two teams in 2014.
Simpson wants his team to make “some noise” against the Wildcats, but realizes the task won’t be an easy one, considering Kentucky is on the cusp of bowl eligibility.
“All you can do is control your team’s mindset,” Simpson said. “You assume every week that you are going to get everybody’s best and hope we play our best. I know mathematically they need two more wins to get to seven and coming off a lot of injuries they have had at the quarterback position, I am sure they are like everybody else, trying to get to the best bowl game you can get to. That doesn’t affect anything for us.”
Stoops praised his staff, especially offensive coordinator Eddie Gran for adjusting the offensive scheme after starting quarterback Terry Wilson went down with a knee injury. Backup signal caller Sawyer Smith has been hampered by nagging injuries, forcing the Wildcats to use Bowden in the pocket during the past five games.
“You see him being the veteran he is and adapting to the players that we have, and I greatly appreciate that and they’ve all done a great job on offense,” Stoops said. … “We went from being very balanced and trying to be very diverse offensively to having to adapt to what we have to do right now to win games. We’re always going to have that blue-collar mentality and that work ethic.”
He also praised his players for embracing the change on offense.
“They are very unselfish and if that is the plan then let’s roll with it and let’s go,” Stoops said. “I think over time they have really embraced that and they see the change. If Sawyer went back in there or Walker (Wood) or whoever, they would embrace that as well.”
Gametracker: UT Martin at Kentucky, Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.