John Clay

In must-win game, Cats get jolt in confidence the old-fashioned way

If Saturday night was indeed a must-win game for Mark Stoops, then the Kentucky coach earned the victory in a way he probably appreciated most. He got it the old-fashioned way.

Eddie Gran’s offense used the ground-and-pound game, featuring the “Boom and Benny Show” with Boom Williams rushing for 123 yards on 15 carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run, while freshman Benny Snell added 73 more on 16 bruising carries.

And on defense, Stoops’ much-maligned unit turned in by far their best performance of the season, limiting the Gamecocks to a touchdown, a field goal and 268 total yards on the way to a 17-10 win at Commonwealth Stadium.

And yes, given the circumstances, it was very much a noise-canceling win, at least for now; Stoops’ third straight victory over South Carolina. After a rough 1-2 start to the season — the season-opening collapse against Southern Miss, a beat-down at Florida and allowing 42 points to New Mexico State — speculation about Stoops’ job status was spinning completely out of control.

Never mind the much-mentioned $12 million buyout or the fact that there were still nine games left in the 2016 season. Stoops needed a win. And he needed it now. So, as it turns out, UK got it the best way it knew how.

“It was a really good team victory,” Stoops said. “Good victory from all three sides.”

In his first start for the injured Drew Barker, junior quarterback Stephen Johnson, the juco transfer, was efficient through the air, hitting on 11 of 19 passes for 135 yards with an interception. But where Johnson helps the attack is with his legs, turning bad plays into not-so-bad plays.

Then there’s Williams, maybe the most underrated and underappreciated running back in the SEC. After gaining 181 yards last week in the 62-point outburst against New Mexico State, Williams provided bursts of 11, 11, 14, 21 and 43 yards on Saturday. The latter run capped an important and impressive five-play drive right out of halftime which gave Kentucky a 10-7 lead with 12:45 left in the third quarter.

Then there was Snell, the rookie and tough cookie out of Ohio who has a knack for churning the pile forward. After rushing for 136 yards last week, Snell battered his way to 73 yards on 16 carries. After Carolina tied the game 10-10 late in the third quarter, Kentucky answered in smash-mouth fashion, running the football 11 straight times — nine by Snell — for what turned out to be the winning score with 10:21 left.

It was Snell who got the score, skipping out of an attempted tackle behind the line of scrimmage to cross the goal line from a yard out.

“Boom is super explosive and can take it the distance at any time,” Stoops said. “Benny is really strong and has good vision.”

Stoops’ defense, ranked 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in total defense coming into the game, was solid for the majority of the night. Its moment of truth came, however, when Carolina took over at its own 30-yard line with 4:23 remaining, needing seven points to tie.

The visitors got off to a strong start, picking up three straight first downs to move the ball to the UK 28. There, however, Kentucky made the plays it needed to make at the time it needed to make them.

Josh Allen sacked USC quarterback Brandon McIlwain for a 7-yard loss. Then on fourth-and-17, Denzil Ware chased down a retreating McIlwain for a 19-yard loss. Ballgame. Big ballgame.

To be sure, South Carolina is a team that won all of three games last season, that has a new coach in Will Muschamp and that entered Saturday night 13th out of the 14 SEC teams in total offense.

None of that mattered to Kentucky, however, which needed a win for its confidence, for its hopes and for its coach.

“That’s the way,” Stoops said, “this football team needs to play.”

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