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September 7, 2013

Stoops savors first win as Cats rock RedHawks

It was a perfect game plan, executed flawlessly.

Not the one Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown drew up to post 675 yards of total offense against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, nor the one defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot implemented at the last minute to stifle a surprise RedHawks wrinkle.

Those were solid, too.

But it was Daniel Berezowitz, Kentucky's recruiting operations director who hatched the idea of linebacker Avery Williamson presenting the game ball to head coach Mark Stoops after the Wildcats' 41-7 win at Commonwealth Stadium, the first of Stoops' head coaching career.

"(Stoops) was really shocked," said Williamson, whom Berezowitz approached in the fourth quarter. "He was shocked. He wasn't expecting it at all, so it was definitely a good feeling. I was just acting like I was just coming up there to speak or whatever, and then I was like, 'We've gotta give Coach his first win.' Everybody was really excited about it."

That included Stoops, who'd scarcely had a moment to consider the milestone in the moments after his Cats crushed Miami (Ohio).

A week earlier, the Stoops Era had gotten off to a rocky start in a 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky. Stoops' singular focus since had been on improvement. In the immediate aftermath of his first win, he'd primarily concerned himself with giving them team its send-off for the night.

Then Williamson pulled his game-ball surprise.

"It really hit me at that moment," Stoops said. "That was like a 'wow' moment for me."

Unlike the week before, Kentucky (1-1) provided plenty of "wow" moments on the field against the RedHawks.

The 675 yards of total offense were the most for a UK team since 1998, when Hal Mumme was running the original "Air Raid" offense.

Brown, who played wide receiver for Mumme, made significant changes after the WKU game -- the most notable of which was subbing Maxwell Smith for Jalen Whitlow as the starting quarterback -- and got a lift from a Miami defense that looked overmatched.

Smith completed 15 of 23 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns Whitlow was 10 of 12 for 103 yards and rushed seven times for 48 yards. It marked the first time since Oct. 13, 2001 that UK had two quarterbacks throw for more than 100 yards in a game.

"(Mumme would) be pleased other than about -- probably like me, not too pleased from midway in the second quarter to midway through the third quarter, but we did some good things," Brown said. "I thought our tempo was better. We didn't play as many plays as we want to, No. 1 because we got some penalties that were lack-of-discipline penalties, and No. 2 is because we were scoring. But I was pleased with the total; I did see the yardage. But there's obviously -- everybody in that stadium knows, too: we've got a long way to go."

But Kentucky had come a long way in a week, on both sides of the ball.

The Wildcats' defense held the RedHawks (0-2) to 122 yards of total offense despite a last-minute change of plan after Stoops and Eliot sniffed out Miami's pregame change to a double-slot option, a look it hadn't shown in its season opener -- or last season.

It was a dramatic change from the week before, when the Hilltoppers hammered Kentucky and racked up 487 yards of total offense.

"Hats off to our defense, to the players, because they came to work this week and didn't fret," Eliot said. "They didn't get down on themselves from the performance last week. They just focused on getting better."

The result was an effort that, combined with UK's offensive excellence, generated much-needed feel-good vibes around Commonwealth Stadium. The listed attendance was 54,846, and those who were in their seats earlier were treated to a show.

But it was what happened late that meant the most to Stoops and his players.

Williamson said he rushed to the locker room, anxious to sing "On, On U of K" after a win for the first time since last Nov. 10. His teammates were anxious to celebrate, too.

"We had a blast in the locker room after the game," Whitlow said. "It was his first win as Kentucky's head football coach. We were happy for him, happy for the program. It's a good program win."

For Stoops, it was something more.

Louisville looms next week, and Stoops said he'd take only a night to savor his first head coaching victory. But it was a day worth savoring, and no moment, it seems, will stick with Stoops quite like Williamson's game-ball delivery.

"When he did that, it did mean an awful lot to me," Stoops said. "I'm very proud of it and look forward to many more."

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