NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The path, he knew, figured to be long, but Mark Stoops so far had been steady in every step.
Kentucky's first year coach had won fans and influenced recruits and had breathed some life into a dying program. The Wildcats built offseason momentum where none had existed before.
On Saturday night, for the first time, Kentucky tapped the brakes.
It wasn't enough to avoid a head-on collision with Western Kentucky, which hit and ran past the Wildcats 35-26 Saturday night at LP Field, making a winner of Bobby Petrino in his Hilltoppers debut and forcing Stoops' first misstep at UK.
"I guess so…," Stoops said when asked if the loss reset where Kentucky is as a program. "We need to coach better, we need to play better and we need to look at everything we're doing, especially defensively, to get them in a position to make some plays."
The Cats made precious few early and not enough late to overcome an overpowering performance from WKU, which rolled up 487 yards of total offense, rushing for 216 and passing for 271, and had four scoring drives of at least 70 yards.
That included the game's opening drive, when the Hilltoppers marched 75 yards on nine plays, scoring a touchdown and setting a tone.
"I think that first drive really did a lot for us," Petrino said.
WKU rushed for 30 yards and threw for 49 on that opening drive, one that Stoops called "very hard" to swallow.
The Cats fell behind 14-3, but battled back to within 14-10, then 21-17 by halftime. WKU controlled the second half with touchdown drives of 64 and 70 yards, the second putting the Hilltoppers in front 35-17 when Leon Allen scored from 14 yards out with 13:32 to play in the game.
Kentucky had a chance to make things interesting after backup quarterback Maxwell Smith hit wide receiver Demarco Robinson with a 34-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 35-26 with 1:37 to play. But Joe Mansour missed the PAT attempt and kicked an onside attempt out of bounds.
"We kick the extra point, we got a shot," Stoops said.
But the game wasn't that close. And Kentucky didn't take much solace in fighting back after falling behind so far.
The Wildcats had 10 penalties for 69 yards, looking a step slow defensively and out of sorts offensively. Hardly the start Kentucky had in mind.
"It's very disappointing," defensive end Bud Dupree said. "We really wanted to set a tone for the rest of the games that we have coming, and we really just didn't do that. We just got to wash it up under the bridge and go back to work Monday."
"Back to work" was a postagme theme. Kentucky's isn't a winning culture, and Stoops and his staff made it clear to players, Dupree said, that there's still time for these Wildcats to change their identity.
"I don't think it'll snowball," wide receiver Demarco Robinson said. "I feel like everybody's still going to work hard. That's the biggest part, just come to work hard. We'll critique this and try to fix everything on Monday."
It won't get done in a day.
That much was made clear Saturday night.
Kentucky came into the game riding high and left with its defense exposed and its offense facing a quarterback controversy after backup Maxwell Smith threw for 125 yards in relief of starter Jalen Whitlow, who passed for 78.
So the Wildcats took some steps back on what had been a forward march.
There will be more bumps in the road.
"I've been pretty realistic about where we're at the whole time, talking to people," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We've got work to do. Our kids are trying hard. We've got a young group that we're playing with. And we're going to get better. This isn't the end-all. Obviously this wasn't the result we wanted by any means but it's not the end of our season. This is going to be a process. You know, I knew what I was getting into."