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Stoops expecting another close encounter against Commodores Saturday in Nashville

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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is 2-2 against Vanderbilt and has yet to defeat the Commodores in Nashville, where the Wildcats haven’t won in eight years. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Vanderbilt is winless in the Southeastern Conference. Although the Commodores are 0-5 in the league, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops expects a close encounter Saturday in Nashville.

“Like always, they are just a good football team across the board,” Stoops said. “They play hard in all phases. They’re sound in what they do. They keep you off-balance offensively. They’re good at what they do, a lot like us grinding out drives, grinding out yards and first downs and taking their shots when they get opportunities. They definitely like to be efficient with the football. And defensively, they always play extremely hard and they’re capable of making a lot of big plays.”

Traditionally, the two SEC East rivals are used to nail-biters more than blowouts. Of the 89 meetings between the two foes, 36 have been decided by seven points or less, including last season when the Wildcats survived with a 20-13 victory in Lexington. On the flip side, the Commodores (4-5, 0-5) have won the last three meetings in Nashville. Kentucky (6-3, 3-3) hasn’t defeated Vanderbilt on its home turf since recording a 24-13 victory during the 2009 season.

Prior to last week’s 31-17 victory over Western Kentucky, the Commodores had lost their previous five games — all league encounters — after opening the season with three straight non-conference victories. A preseason favorite to reach the postseason, Vandy is struggling to become bowl eligible.

“Coming into the season (bowl eligibility) was a goal, but that was it,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said earlier this week. “As you get into the season you adapt and adjust. Right now I’m just worried about winning days.”

Stoops said the Commodores are similar to the Wildcats, especially offensively. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb, pace Vanderbilt’s offensive attack.

“Offensively, they’re like us in that they are efficient in what they do,” Stoops said. “They like to keep you off-balance. They run the ball so effectively, they’re so multiple in their formations and then they boot in play action and give them time to take their shots.”

Mason has been equally impressed with Kentucky’s offense, which scored a late go-ahead touchdown that was wiped out by a touchdown counter by Ole Miss in the closing seconds of the Rebels’ 37-34 triumph last week in Lexington. The loss was the Wildcats’ second in three games since returning from a bye week.

“We’re going to face a real good Kentucky football team and I think their most improved player is (quarterback Stephen) Johnson,” Mason said. “When you look at him, he’s managing the game and he’s taking care of the football. And he’s got a receiving corps that can make plays for him.”

During the past two seasons, Johnson has compiled a 11-7 mark as the team’s starter, while Benny Snell has provided relief in the backfield during the past two weeks, rushing for 356 yards and six touchdowns. Snell needs just 12 yards to become the ninth player in school history to rush for 2,000 or more yards. Snell is 103 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard plateau for the second straight season.

“He is a strong guy and it takes an awful lot for him to get worn out that way,” Stoops said. “But also some of the testing that we have done with him in the offseason and all that he is amazing in the way he recovers. He does that anyway. He has an ability to recover very quickly with his heart rate and things.”

Although a letdown last week, Kentucky is 8-3 in close games during the past two seasons and two of the team’s three losses this season have been by a combined margin of four points. The lone exception was a 45-7 loss at Mississippi State nearly three weeks ago in Starkville. Stoops said the Wildcats are striving to become more consistent.

“I think we’ve won some games where we haven’t played perfect football,” he said. “We’ve lost some games where we haven’t played perfect football. We’re constantly striving for that, and hopefully we’ll get closer and closer.”

Kentucky is 2-1 in away games this season and Stoops said the Wildcats need to play with more determination following its last road encounter against the Bulldogs.

“I think we have to play with a sense of urgency,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to get right on to the next opportunity, the next game. That’s what makes it exciting for us.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Vandy, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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