UK Football

John Clay: Road win would show Kentucky football truly is improving

Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops, and team run onto the field prior to the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015.  Photo by Ken Weaver
Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops, and team run onto the field prior to the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015. Photo by Ken Weaver Ken Weaver

Kentucky thinks it is better than last year. Kentucky says it is better than last year. Kentucky says it is more consistent and more mature than it showed in its 40-33 season-opening survival of Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday.

Is Kentucky really better?

Now's the time to prove it.

Saturday night in Columbia, S.C., is UK's first road game of the season and the long and winding road has represented a long and winding losing streak for the Kentucky football program.

You've probably heard the stat. Head coach Mark Stoops has made sure his team has heard the stat. The Cats have lost 22 straight "true" road games. Yikes.

Avoiding 23 won't be easy, even if Saturday's opponent isn't the scariest of South Carolina football teams. South Carolina is coached by Steve Spurrier, still feisty after all these years. And Spurrier has a long memory.

He didn't forget that ex-Kentucky coach Bill Curry didn't retain Spurrier's services as quarterbacks coach when Curry first took over as head coach at Georgia Tech. Thus, while at Florida, Spurrier rubbed Curry's face in it at every chance.

Spurrier surely hasn't forgotten that his Gamecocks blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and lost 45-38 to Stoops' troops last season at Commonwealth Stadium.

And last Thursday night, South Carolina showed it hasn't forgotten how to pull out a win. Down 13-10 to North Carolina in the fourth quarter, tailback Shon Carson ripped off a 48-yard touchdown run to put Spurrier's squad ahead to stay.

Kentucky hasn't learned how to stop the run. Yes, quarterback Patrick Towles was inconsistent against Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday. Yes, by his own admission, new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson got a little greedy. Still, Kentucky gave up 247 rushing yards. The Ragin' Cajuns ran 88 plays, the most against a UK defense in a regulation game since 2011 at South Carolina. Kentucky lost that game 54-3.

No one is expecting a similar smashing Saturday night. If these Cats really harbor higher aspirations, however, they must do some road work.

The history books show that every significant UK team in the past 40 years has won at least one significant game away from home, starting with the 1976 team's 7-0 win over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium to clinch the school's first bowl bid (Peach) in 25 years.

The springboard to Kentucky's 10-1 season in 1977 was a 24-20 win over Joe Paterno at Penn State. In 1983, when Kentucky rallied from an 0-10-1 Jerry Claiborne debut to a second-year bowl bid, the Cats won 21-13 at LSU. In 1984, when Caliborne's team won the Hall of Fame Bowl, the Cats were a perfect 4-0 on the road.

In 1998, when Hal Mumme and Tim Couch teamed up to reach the Outback Bowl, UK pulled off a dramatic 39-36 win over LSU in Baton Rouge. In 1999, when Mumme took UK to the Music City Bowl, Kentucky won 30-10 at South Carolina, its last win in Columbia.

During the 2006 through 2010 run of five straight bowl games, Kentucky won at least one road game each year. In fact, the turnaround game of the Rich Brooks era came in 2006 when the Cats bounced back from a 49-0 pounding at LSU to win 34-31 at Mississippi State.

Six wins in their eight home games would make these 2015 Cats bowl eligible. With Florida, Missouri, Auburn, Tennessee and Louisville on the home schedule, however, achieving six Commonwealth Stadium wins is far from a slam dunk.

Snapping the nasty road losing streak would make the bowl-eligibility task so much easier. It would also render the expectations more than preseason happy talk.

As Stoops keeps saying, it's all about opportunities. Saturday night is Kentucky's first real opportunity to show it is indeed improved — improved enough to win one on the road.

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