At kickoff, the place could have swallowed them up. And to hear tell of it, their opponent could have eaten them alive.
The football Wildcats lined up to spend the next 60 minutes getting hot, bruised and sweaty against the nation’s top-ranked team Saturday night. More than a hundred thousand Alabama fans, most of them bathed in some shade of Crimson, were in full throat, fully expecting to see their heroes destroy these upstarts from Lexington.
That it wasn’t quite as easy as most people anticipated is why Mark Stoops felt the way he did on the way home. It was his first trip to Tuscaloosa and, to his great relief, it in no way resembled his recent visit to Gainesville. That’s where the Florida Gators sank their teeth into Stoops’ team and quickly shook it apart.
The fact that Kentucky responded with back-to-back victories tells you something about the resiliency of this team, a trait that peeked through in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night against Nick Saban’s ballclub.
How tough was it?
Go back and re-read the first four paragraphs (okay, skim them) and where it says “Bryant-Denny Stadium,” substitute “Rupp Arena.” And instead of “Nick Saban,” read, “John Calipari.” And while you’re at it, change “Crimson” to “Blue.”
Now you know how opposing basketball teams feel about taking on the Wildcats in Lexington. They roll into town, wondering if they can hang with what’s lately been the most highly-touted collection of college basketball athletes on the planet, in a place that’s one of the largest made-for-hoops arenas in the country, home to the nation’s winningest basketball program. Of course, the ear-splitting noise that often (but not always) erupts can make the place seem as though the walls are starting to close in.
It ain’t easy.
Not every game has been a walkover for Calipari’s Cats, just as the win for Saban’s team wasn’t quite the laugher so many predicted.
“We go into a situation like that against the No. 1 team in the country and it’s extremely physical, extremely talented and very well-coached,” Stoops said at his weekly news conference Monday. “Our guys competed. I thought we did the right things, were in the right position, guys were executing for the most part.”
Which definitely is NOT what happened at Florida.
““We weren’t pleased last time we went into that situation,” Stoops said, “and we didn’t handle it very well, for whatever reason.”
That reason seems to be behind them now, if their performance against Bama is any indication. “I thought overall we had guys in the right position, guys were straining to make plays,” Stoops said. “We weren’t just blowing assignments because bad things were happening. We got lined up and made them beat us. We didn’t beat ourselves. We got some stops and had some chances.”
That’s improvement. And now they have to take another big step because, following a duel, however lop-sided, with the nation’s number one program, this week the Cats have TWO obstacles – Vanderbilt, and themselves.
Vandy is the team that last year left them with their backs pinned firmly against the wall, heading into their season finale against Louisville. The loss to the Commodores was perhaps the ugliest mess in the Stoops Era thus far. Dropping that one meant they HAD to beat U of L to make a bowl game. Didn’t happen.
“It bothers me,” Stoops said, “and will probably bother me the rest of my life. But this is a total new year.”
One that has the Wildcats playing the ‘Dores before they’ve even reached the midway point of the season and yet, this one is crucial. Lose to Vanderbilt and any chance of making the post season likely melts away in an acid pool of disappointment.
So Vandy is one of the two obstacles. The other? Themselves. As solid as their effort was last Saturday, the Wildcats have to forget about it, just as surely as if it was a victory, putting aside thoughts of the Crimson and taking aim at the Black and Gold.
Revenge would be helpful, right about now.