COLUMBIA, S.C. — When it comes to South Carolina, Kentucky is past the point of moral victories.
Sure, the Cats battled through a lot of adversity. They made the trip without their two starting cornerbacks, including All-America candidate Trevard Lindley. They lost starting quarterback Mike Hartline, who was playing perhaps his best game of the year, early in the third quarter to a sprained knee. And, as they do seemingly every year, they went tooth-and-nail with the Gamecocks into the fourth quarter.
And, as they do seemingly every year, the Wildcats found a way to lose.
All of the Cats' resilience went for naught, and No. 25 South Carolina held on for a 28-26 win in front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 68,278 at Williams-Brice Stadium. It was South Carolina's 10th straight win over UK and kept Coach Steve Spurrier unbeaten in 17 attempts against the Wildcats.
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The Cats can look to a handful of plays and wonder what might have been. There were two potential touchdown passes that were dropped; a failed fake field-goal attempt in the third quarter; a costly procedure penalty that negated a first down and killed a potential go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter; a 5-yard punt that set up South Carolina for a touchdown; and a failed two-point conversion that could have tied the game with 4:34 remaining.
After the game, a somber coach Rich Brooks didn't see an upside in another hard-fought, close loss to the Gamecocks.
"You can't be encouraged by a loss," Brooks said. "I was proud of the way our kids battled and fought back. We were in this position to win this game, and this is one of those wins that we needed pretty badly, and we failed to get it."
Hartline looked in rhythm on UK's first drive and probably would have put six points on the board had Randall Cobb not dropped a perfect slant pass over the middle on third-and-5 from the Gamecocks' 18. Instead, Kentucky had to settle for a 36-yard Lones Seiber field goal at the 4:43 mark and a 3-0 lead.
Cobb had a monster game with 229 all-purpose yards and led a late drive as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation that brought the Cats to within two. But he was upset with himself for the drop.
"That's a big play that I have to make and am supposed to make," Cobb said. "That's why I'm out there, to make those plays, and I didn't make it."
Kentucky's other receivers combined for just six catches, one less than South Carolina freshman Alshon Jeffery. Taking advantage of UK's inexperienced and injury-riddled secondary, Jeffery caught seven passes for 138 yards and three scores.
Kentucky tight end T.C. Drake let a potential touchdown pass slip off his fingertips in the fourth quarter with Kentucky trailing 21-17.
"They made plays on the perimeter, and we didn't," said Joker Phillips, UK's head coach for offense. "Their big receiver (Jeffery) goes up and takes it from us, and our big receiver (Chris Matthews) didn't do that like theirs did. We dropped one in the end zone. Randall dropped one. You've got to make those plays. We don't ask them to do anything they can't do, and those plays we had a chance to make we just did not make."
South Carolina's Chris Culliver set up a pair of scores with long kickoff returns. His first went 61 yards and led to Jeffery's 10-yard TD catch that gave South Carolina a 7-3 lead with 3:55 left in the first quarter. After Derrick Locke scored on an 11-yard run to put UK back up 10-7, Culliver evaded several Wildcats for a 49-yard return to the Kentucky 39. Quarterback Stephen Garcia then hooked up with Jeffery again, this time from 28 yards, to reclaim the lead for South Carolina (14-10) at 13:06 of the second quarter.
"The second (kickoff return) was some of the worst tackling I've ever seen," Brooks said. "I think we missed nine tackles. It was not very good coverage."
Still, UK took a 17-14 lead into halftime. Hartline went back to the same quick slant that Cobb dropped earlier, and this time Cobb hauled it in for a 7-yard touchdown with 9:06 left in the second quarter.
Hartline was sent to the deck less than a minute into the third quarter after his knee twisted awkwardly upon being hit by safety Darian Stewart. Hartline suffered what Brooks called a "significant" knee injury.
"We'll know more in the next 36 hours, but it does not look good," he said. "I'm sure he'll be out this coming week at the minimum."
Jeffery got TD No. 3 when Garcia attacked a Wildcats blitz and found him in the right corner of the end zone for a 21-17 Carolina lead with 6:29 left in the third.
Backup quarterback Will Fidler moved the offense on his first full series. Locke ran 31 yards to the Gamecocks' 29, and Gene McCaskill caught an 11-yard pass to the 18. But the Wildcats missed out on potential points when they lined up for a 32-yard field-goal attempt only to have Cobb stuffed for a 3-yard loss on a fake.
"It was a dumb call by me," Brooks said of the sweep. "We were expecting a rush from the other side. We should have checked out of it, but we didn't. We should have kicked the field goal because they weren't in the defense we expected them to be in."
The defense got the ball right back for Kentucky when Taylor Wyndham stripped Garcia at the S.C. 23 and Calvin Harrison recovered and returned it to the 15. After Drake's end-zone drop, Seiber made a 35-yard field to bring UK to within 21-20 with 1:24 left in the third.
Kentucky was marching on a potential go-ahead drive early in the fourth quarter when things temporarily unraveled. Facing a fourth-and-3 from the Gamecocks' 39, Fidler completed a pass to Cobb for an apparent first down, but Kentucky had signaled for a timeout before the ball was snapped. Locke then ran for the first down, but the play was negated by a procedure penalty. Ryan Tydlacka followed by shanking a punt that was good for only 5 yards after bouncing the wrong way, putting the Gamecocks at their 39.
Spurrier then pulled out some trickery to pad the lead. Garcia pitched the ball to tailback Brian Maddox, who threw it back to Garcia. Garcia found Moe Brown downfield for a 22-yard gain to the 27. After Kenny Miles ran 26 yards to the 1, Garcia scored on a keeper to make it 28-20 with 8:22 remaining.
UK went exclusively to the Wildcat formation with Cobb at quarterback and Fidler at wide receiver on the next series and marched 70 yards in eight plays. Cobb had 64 of those yards, including runs of 20 and 25 yards to go with his 2-yard touchdown run at 4:34 to cut the deficit to two at 28-26. Fidler went back to quarterback for the two-point-conversion attempt but his pass intended for Cobb was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Cliff Matthews.
Brooks said he went with Fidler on the conversion try because Cobb was "absolutely gassed" after carrying much of the load on the scoring drive.
Spurrier was glad to see Fidler replace Cobb.
"We're all happy they didn't put that running quarterback in there, Randall Cobb," he said. "I'm glad they didn't use him the last possession because we were in disarray there. We couldn't tackle him."
Brooks said the play call was the same one that Cobb scored on in the second quarter, and Phillips said Chris Matthews was wide open in the back of the end zone.
"We just didn't protect it," Phillips said. "A guy got in (Fidler's) face and deflected the ball. We had what we wanted coverage-wise and play-wise, we just didn't execute."
Kentucky called its final timeout and forced South Carolina into a third-and-6 from its 35 with 2:26 left, but a 14-yard run by Miles sealed the deal.