A buzz filled Commonwealth Stadium at halftime as Kentucky led sixth-ranked South Carolina.
The stadium, despite many empty seats, buzzed with anticipation of a potential upset and another potential win over Coach Steve Spurrier.
But the Gamecocks' running game and dominant defense were the ultimate buzzkill in the second half as South Carolina scored 31 unanswered points to top the Cats 38-17 on Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 49,810.
The win was the Gamecocks' ninth straight, dating to last season.
In the third quarter, South Carolina held Kentucky to 33 total yards and gained more yards (155) than it had in the entire first half (108). The Gamecocks connected on all three third-down tries after going 2-for-7 in the first half.
South Carolina got its big push on the back of Marcus Lattimore, who had 120 yards and two touchdowns. The junior tailback had only three carries for 16 yards in the first half.
"Nothing else was working very well," Spurrier said. "We were getting sacked all over the place, so it was time to try to give it to (Lattimore)."
South Carolina went ahead for good on a 17-yard run by senior Kenny Miles with five minutes to go in the third quarter. He was part of a Gamecocks rushing attack that put up 200 yards, including 174 in the second half.
"They started to ground and pound," UK freshman cornerback Cody Quinn said. "They started running it down our throats. What they were doing before, running from side to side, wasn't working, so they changed their plan."
The big chunks of yardage and the long drives eventually took their toll on Kentucky's young defense.
"We got beaten down a little bit," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "Our kids are battling their tails off, and we've got to just keep improving. When the day was over, it was 200 yards rushing, 50 percent on third down. Until those issues change, probably the game results aren't going to change a great deal."
In the second half, South Carolina's defensive front showed why it is one of the most feared in the nation, pressuring and dropping backup quarterback Jalen Whitlow several times.
At the half, Spurrier didn't see a beaten South Carolina team. He saw one ready to make a comeback.
"Our guys really had a good look in their eyes, that they wanted to play the second half," he said. "There wasn't any moping, nobody was pouting, nobody was pointing fingers. We were all bad so there weren't any fingers to point except all at ourselves."
By the end of the game, the Gamecocks had seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Whitlow, who connected on 12 of his 23 pass attempts for 114 yards, was rushed into two critical interceptions by the end of the game.
Whitlow was forced into service almost from the start after starter Maxwell Smith was sacked on the second play of the game, injuring his ankle.
"Obviously, it wasn't a well-oiled machine when he was out there," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said of Whitlow. "We had way too many miscues, and when you're playing a team as good as they are and a defense as good as they are, you can't afford miscues like that and wasted plays, and we had way too many of those."
Smith, who was still recovering from a separated shoulder two games ago, was carted to the locker room before the end of the first quarter and was not suited up to start the second half. He was on the sideline on crutches. Phillips said X-rays on the left ankle were negative and that Smith will be re-evaluated on Sunday.
Whitlow, whom offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said knew about 10 percent of the playbook and Coach Joker Phillips said "wasn't god-awful" in Wednesday's practice, managed to lead the Cats 94 yards down the field before Craig McIntosh knocked through a 22-yard field goal.
Last season in the 54-3 stomping in Columbia, the Cats' offense managed just 96 yards of total offense in the game. They had nearly that amount in the first scoring drive and managed 173 yards at the half.
South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) grabbed the lead back early in the second quarter when Ace Sanders reeled in a 3-yard pass from Connor Shaw in the end zone. Shaw completed 15 of 18 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 76 yards on 19 carries.
Four minutes after that South Carolina score, Whitlow showed why the coaches said he earned the backup role, because of his ability to run the ball. The true freshman from Prattville, Ala., pump-faked twice, then ran it in 8 yards from the right side for the score.
It was the first rushing touchdown given up this season by the Gamecocks' dominant run defense, which came into Commonwealth Stadium eighth in the nation allowing only 67 yards a game.
A huge play on special teams set up a Raymond Sanders touchdown late in the first half. Freshman Daron Blaylock leaped over the Gamecocks' punt wall and got his hand on a punt. Another true freshman, A.J. Legree scooped it up to give UK the ball at the South Carolina 34.
The Cats had another big break on third-and-8 when Daryl Collins caught a pass tipped in the air by a South Carolina defender to keep the drive alive and set up a 10-yard scoring run for Sanders to give UK the 17-7 advantage.
When the Gamecocks got the ball back late in the second quarter, they gambled on fourth-and-1 and it nearly cost them another touchdown. The snap went over the head of Shaw, who got hit trying to scoop it up. Taylor Wyndham came up with the loose ball at the South Carolina 10.
Trying to tuck and run, Whitlow fumbled on third down. UK's Demarco Robinson recovered, but Kentucky didn't have any timeouts left and the seconds ticked off the clock with the Cats holding a 17-7 lead going into the locker room.
"We missed a huge opportunity," Phillips said. "We missed a huge opportunity to get points. I think that was a momentum swing. ... A huge momentum swing."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com