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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mark Stoops quickly dismisses any notion of FCS Chattanooga being a “breather” game for Kentucky.
Not with the Wildcats (2-0) facing another Southeastern Conference challenge looming next week at South Carolina. And certainly not with Kentucky hungry to keep rolling against the Mocs (1-1) after answering several gut checks last week against Missouri.
“Any great team, no matter what competition level is, plays to the best of their ability,” the coach said this week. “That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s on to the next opponent, it’s on to the next challenge for me, it’s trying to get their minds right.
“This team was picked to win their league, so you know they’re talented and can do some good things. No matter who we’re playing, you’re always going to hear me talk about us.”
And Kentucky has given Stoops plenty of good things to say.
The Wildcats squandered a 28-14 lead to the Tigers, but quickly answered in the fourth quarter and made a key stop late for a 35-28 victory that seized the initial SEC East lead. Kentucky never trailed, but the resilience shown after Mizzou tied the tense game is why the ninth-year coach is so upbeat.
That contest revealed flaws that Stoops stressed must be corrected, even against a supposedly overmatched opponent.
“You still got to keep the same approach," running back Kavosiey Smoke said. "You’ve got to have the same mindset like you’re playing Florida. You can’t underestimate any team.”
The Mocs used every phase to shut out North Alabama 20-0 on the road last week.
Ailym Ford ran for a short TD before Jerrell Lawson returned an interception 38 yards for a score. Aaron Sears’ two field goals bookended those scores as Chattanooga held UNA to just 131 yards.
The Southern Conference school faces a huge challenge pursuing just its fifth victory in 127 meetings against 10 SEC schools and first since beating Tennessee 14-8 on Nov. 8, 1958. Then again, eight FCS schools have beaten FBS opponents already, and Mocs coach Rusty Wright echoed Stoops’ belief that it’s more about what his team does than Kentucky.
“You got to weather some storms to get it done and hang in there,” said Wright, who praised the Wildcats as a complete team. “You can’t let it snowball and let it get out of control. That’s what we have to overcome.”
Some other things to watch as Kentucky hosts Chattanooga:
Two games have shown Kentucky’s offensive determination to shed a label of being predictable. First-year coordinator Liam Coen’s pro set scheme has helped the Wildcats record consecutive 500-yard efforts for the first time in program history, and they rank 12th nationally at 541.5 yards per game. Best of all, they’ve shown balance with passing (419 yards) and rushing (340) setting the tone respectively the first two weeks.
“I’m pleased with how well they are adapting to it, how much they are picking it up,” Stoops said. “We can be a lot better. I love the fact that we’re doing what we need to do.”
Mocs defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell ranks fourth all-time in school history with 21 sacks, including 3.5 last week that tied another program mark and earned SoCon defensive weekly honors. He made three in the fourth quarter and is averaging a sack every 11.8 plays.
Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is coming off career bests of 27 rushes for 206 yards and two of his three touchdowns. His 323 yards mark the best two-game start in program history, and he has yet to lose yardage. Rodriguez’s first touchdown reception jump-started his career day that earned SEC offensive player of the week honors.
Kentucky is minus-4 in turnover margin and had a giveaway lead to an opponent touchdown for the second consecutive week. To be fair, both of Will Levis’ interceptions have come off receivers’ fingertips. But Rodriguez’s two goal-line fumbles last week — one of which Missouri converted into a TD — raise concerns. Stoops stood by his back this week and expressed confidence that Rodriguez will correct things.
Ford’s 111 yards rushing against UNA was his seventh triple-digit performance of his 13-game career. That put the sophomore within 153 yards of reaching 1,500.
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