Kentucky didn’t get the start it wanted, but it wrote its own happy ending.
Despite spotting South Carolina a touchdown on the first play of the game and sputtering early offensively, UK found a way to top the Gamecocks for a fourth straight time 23-13 on Saturday night.
“We take a shot right on the chin to start the game, the place is going wild and we embraced it,” Coach Mark Stoops said of the rowdy crowd of 82,493 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We took the shot and went right back to work. That doesn’t even faze us, and that’s what I love about this team,” he said.
Kentucky also embraced the role of underdog, saying that people picking against them served as motivation all week as they prepared for South Carolina.
Being called the underdog all week was a slap in the face for a team that had won three straight in the series, Stoops said.
“Quite honestly we were tired of it,” he said of the talk about South Carolina being an improved team. “What, like we didn’t get better? Like we’re not a better football team? Whatever. We’re better.”
The Cats’ defense certainly was better, getting two huge fourth-down stops in the win including one at the goal line and only allowing the Gamecocks to connect on three of their 12 third-down tries.
After falling behind 6-0, Kentucky scored 20 unanswered points before the Gamecocks kept it interesting with a touchdown throw with 6:26 to play.
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘We’re good. We can keep on playing,’” senior linebacker Courtney Love said. “That’s what we did.”
While South Carolina had its way through the air for much of the game, UK’s stout run defense stayed firm, holding a third straight opponent under 62 yards on the ground, this time 54 yards for the Gamecocks.
It was the first time in nine years that the Cats held three consecutive opponents under 100 yards rushing.
“They whipped us up front,” South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp said. “I was extremely disappointed in that, and I didn’t feel like we were able to get it going in the second half.”
Kentucky (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) got its own ground game going as well behind Benny Snell, who had 102 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in the win.
The sophomore running back did it despite suffering bruised ribs a week ago against Eastern Kentucky.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Stoops said of Snell playing through pain. “Basically practiced full go all week. He’s a tough guy and had some tough yards tonight.”
Both of Snell’s scorers, one from 5 yards out and a second for 1 yard, were out of the wildcat formation, which has been much maligned by fans this season.
“We ain’t never going to give up the wildcat,” Snell smiled.
Stephen Johnson hit nine different targets and completed 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards. The senior quarterback also ran for 74 yards, including a key 54-yard scamper on third-and-8 in the waning minutes that kept a UK drive alive.
“That’s a game clincher,” Stoops said of UK, which won the time of possession battle in a big way, holding onto the ball for 36:49 compared to 23:11 for South Carolina.
Johnson’s big run kept the Gamecocks’ offense off the field. That drive ended in a 21-yard field goal for Austin MacGinnis, his third of the game.
The final few electric beats of “Sandstorm” still hung in the air when Jake Bentley found star Deebo Samuel for a 68-yard touchdown throw, the wideout’s sixth score of the young season. Alexander Woznick missed the extra point.
Samuel came into the game with two 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns and another on the ground. South Carolina officials reported later that the junior wide receiver suffered a season-ending leg injury late in the game.
Bentley had a strong showing, throwing for 304 yards on 24-for-36 passing, including a 9-yard pass to OrTre Smith with 6:26 left to cut the Cats’ lead to 20-13.
Early in the game things continued to look bad for Kentucky when on the second play of the game, UK’s Johnson got picked off. A few minutes later, it was a wild snap in the wildcat that gave the Gamecocks the ball back again.
“On the sidelines, we stayed calm,” Snell said. “We played football, Kentucky football.”
As it did most of the game, the Cats’ defense held up. And after that one play for 68 yards, South Carolina had just 16 total yards on its next 13 plays, which included three straight three-and-outs.
In the meantime, Kentucky’s offense found enough flow to get on the board, going 75 yards in 13 plays behind contributions all around to go up 7-6 on a 5-yard touchdown run for Snell out of the wildcat formation and an Austin MacGinnis extra point.
Snell did it again on the next drive, too, carrying it in one yard out of the direct snap into the end zone to cap an 11-play, 67-yard drive for Kentucky, which grabbed a 14-6 lead with 8:37 to go before the break.
South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) had a chance to pull within three in the final seconds of the half, but Parker White’s 54-yard field goal missed wide right. His original kick, from 49 yards, would have been good but the Gamecocks were called for a delay of game.
In the first half, Johnson connected with eight different targets and completed 12 of his 17 pass attempts for 130 yards.
The Cats outgained the Gamecocks 202-186, including 72-42 on the ground behind Snell, who had 56 yards on 14 carries.
Another long drive, this time 12 plays for 42 yards that ate up 5:29 of clock midway through the third quarter, didn’t end in the C.J. Conrad touchdown catch the Cats drew up, but MacGinnis extended the lead to 17-6 with a 27-yard field goal.
In the third quarter, South Carolina’s offense found a rhythm and a flow behind Bentley, who completed nine straight passes on a drive that got to the Kentucky 1-yard line.
That’s where the Cats’ defense made a huge stand without a key player. Eli Brown, who was playing in place of injured weakside linebacker Jordan Jones, was hurt on a third-down play at the end zone.
On fourth-and-1, redshirt freshman Jamar “Boogie” Watson came in for Brown and assisted Derrick Baity on the tackle short of the goal line. It meant South Carolina came away with nothing on a drive that ate up 70 yards in 14 plays.
Before his departure, which UK said later was just cramping, Brown had a solid stat line for Kentucky with five tackles, including one for loss.
South Carolina got the ball back again at the Kentucky 33-yard line, but missed badly missed a 42-yard field goal — drawing a cluster of boos — after going nine yards in four plays.
Derrick Baity led the UK defense with eight tackles and an interception late in the game. Mike Edwards added seven tackles and the Cats got six tackles apiece from Darius West, Love and Brown.
Florida at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)