Date story was published: Sunday, October 10, 1999
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Two. The magic number is two.
Back on Sept. 4, when Kentucky was doubled up by visiting Louisville on opening day, two was a number all right - the number of games many thought Kentucky might win all season.
Instead, with five games remaining in this turnaround of a 1999 season, two is the number of victories the Wildcats need to become (gasp) bowl eligible.
Yesterday brought back-to-back bowl appearances one step closer.
With the normally potent offense struggling, Kentucky's defense took up the slack, handcuffing South Carolina's feeble offense as the Cats rolled to a 30-10 win at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Mike Major's defense limited the SEC's worst offense to just 78 yards well into the fourth quarter until South Carolina freshman quarterback Mikal Goodman hit wideout Kerry Hood on a 78-yard touchdown pass with 9:19 left.
By then, Kentucky owned a commanding lead and was cruising to its fourth win in its last five games. Hal Mumme's young team now stands tall at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference .
Thinking back to Sept. 4, who would have believed that?
"I would have," said tight end James Whalen, who added nine catches to his league-leading total yesterday. "Why wouldn't you? We went out and played bad that first game, we didn't play to our potential. But that's just one week. That's why they give you 11 games, plus a bowl game, plus an SEC Championship."
Senior linebacker Jeff Snedegar believed as well: "I knew we had it in us," he said . "I just didn't know when we were going to start playing together."
Added quarterback Dusty Bonner: "It was a team thing . Coach Mumme always says play the next play. We just had to play the next game."
And so the Cats have, beating Connecticut and Indiana, losing to Florida, but rebounding with last week's win over then-No. 20 Arkansas. Then came yesterday's almost methodical, take-care-of-business performance against Lou Holtz's undermanned and unlucky Gamecocks, now 0-6 overall and 0-4 in the league.
"Defensively, we gave a great effort," Holtz said. "Offensively, seven freshmen."
The way the Cats won yesterday might have been the only surprise. "We were really bad on offense," Mumme said. "Thank goodness for the defense."
With UK up 6-3 early in the second quarter and Carolina on its own 2 -yard line, Cats free safety Anthony Wajda scooped up a fumble by freshman fullback Andrew Pinnock and proceeded 5 yards for a touchdown.
On the Gamecocks' next possession, UK cornerback Eric Kelly picked off a Goodman pass and returned it 29 yards to the South Carolina 27. Three plays later, freshman receiver Brad Pyatt snatched a Bonner pass sandwiched between double coverage for a 27-yard score and a 20-3 lead. "That was an outstanding catch," Mumme said.
In the third quarter, UK's Gordon Crowe recovered a fumble at the South Carolina 31-yard line. Five plays later, Bonner scrambled 7 yards to put UK ahead 27-3.
After that first game - when Louisville put 56 points on the board - who would have thought the question mark would be UK's offense?
For the third consecutive game, the Cats were held under 400 yards, gaining 337 against the SEC's second-best defense.
"We weren't clicking today," Mumme said. "It was very similar to last year's Indiana game, and the defense bailed us out. The good news is we got an SEC road win without playing very good on offense."
Six times, Kentucky had the football inside the South Carolina 20-yard line and came away with just two touchdowns from those possessions. Three of the possessions ended with Marc Samuel field goals. And in the third quarter, South Carolina's Kevin House picked off a Bonner pass at the goal line.
"I tell you what South Carolina did," Mumme said. "They lined up and their front four just whipped our offensive line."
The Cats turned the ball over three times. Bonner lost two fumbles in addition to his interception.
"The interception wasn't his fault," Mumme said. "That was on the receiver who quit running. That was Garry Davis on the goal line. Garry said it as soon as he came off the field."
Whalen, the UK tight end, credited the Gamecocks defense. "South Carolina was really inspired ," he said. "Especially when we got down inside the red zone, they really, really closed things down. It was tough for us to get things down there."
But, in the end, the Cats got it done - "The sign of a good team is when you can win without your best stuff," Whalen said - running their record to 4-2 for the second successive season and the fourth time in the 1990s.
The last two times Kentucky was 4-2 at this point in the season the Wildcats had a post-season. After a 4-2 start in 1993, the Cats were pitted in the Peach Bowl. After a 4-2 start last season, the Cats reached the Outback Bowl.
"We can't be thinking about that; we've got a lot of games to go," Snedegar said. "We've got LSU coming in here. We can't afford to look ahead. We ain't that good yet."