LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Kentucky showed it's heading in the right direction under Mark Stoops, getting within a win of bowl eligibility in the coach's second season and ending a 16-game Southeastern Conference drought.
But the Wildcats still have a ways to go.
They finished with a losing record again after failing to win one of their final six contests. To get over the next hurdle they'll have to do it with a new offensive coordinator with Neal Brown taking the Troy job.
Despite staggering to the finish, Stoops believes Kentucky (5-7, 2-6 SEC) has many positives to build on after winning more games than the past two seasons combined. The Wildcats ended a two-year SEC losing skid and had a chance to beat rival Louisville on their last possession Saturday before losing 44-40.
Now their challenge is to get past the disappointment of their six-game slide after starting 5-1.
"As you look at the season I never hid from the fact that it was important to win one of these games down the stretch and we didn't get that done," Stoops said afterward before departing for a recruiting trip.
"I know we've improved. If you look at the season in its entirety, I think it's hard for a team to play 12 weeks at their best. We certainly didn't do that but I think if you look at maybe nine or so of the games, I felt our team competed and tried."
Indeed, Kentucky's resolve shown during Saturday's loss at Louisville symbolized its transformation from a program that couldn't compete the past two seasons into one that scored a lot of points. The Wildcats' 29.2-point average per game was nearly nine higher than last season. They also averaged 384.3 yards per contest, 40 more than in 2013.
Showing much of that swagger was sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles, who earned the job after being out of the mix last season. He completed 57 percent of his passes for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions, adding 303 yards and six TDs rushing.
Though the rushing numbers showed Towles' dual skills, they also illustrated the Wildcats' struggles executing Brown's pass-oriented Air Raid scheme, particularly down the stretch. Towles threw for over 200 yards just once in the final six games and was intercepted twice by Louisville, including on Kentucky's final drive.
"I have to be more consistent," Towles said. "I have to get back to work and make more plays."
Towles' development will continue with a new coordinator after Brown was introduced as Troy's new head coach on Monday following two seasons in Lexington.
Kentucky's defense improved as well, ranking in the upper half of several conference categories. The Wildcats intercepted 15 passes after picking off just three last season while recording four more sacks (27).
On the other hand, Kentucky allowed at least 40 points and 400 yards in five of their six losses.
"The defense, we definitely need to continue to work on," Stoops said. "We have some matchup problems that we need to address."
Replacing pass-rushing ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'darius Smith on defense is among Stoops' priorities on the recruiting trail. He has already made an impact with several recruits from last season's top-25 class contributing and aims to land another strong group for 2015.
Wildcats freshman tailback Stanley "Boom" Williams believes those pieces will help Kentucky close the deal on the postseason next fall.
"We have guys who didn't play this year who will be on the field next year, so we're looking forward to that," said Williams, who led Kentucky with 1,161 all-purpose yards including 488 rushing. "It's going to be a real good offseason."
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