John Clay

Kentucky football needs a win, but so do the cornered Gamecocks

In SEC football, the task at hand never gets easier.

After Kentucky squandered a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in a 29-21 loss to Florida and snoozed its way through the first 30 minutes of a 28-13 loss at Mississippi State, Kentucky now finds itself on the road again for a cornered animal game.

Cornered chicken is more like it. That would be the South Carolina Gamecocks, who play host to the Cats for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. An extremely unhappy Columbia we should add, considering Carolina’s rough 2019 start.

South Carolina dropped to 1-3 on the season, including 0-2 in SEC play, with a 34-14 loss at Missouri on Saturday. After an unexpected opening week loss to North Carolina (2-10 in 2018) and a 47-23 home thumping by No. 2 Alabama, Carolina’s mistakes at Mizzou have surely turned up the heat on head coach Will Muschamp. “Coach Boom” sits a mere 23-20 overall and 12-14 in the league over his four years leading the Gamecocks.

Losing quarterback Jake Bentley hasn’t helped. The senior is out for the season after fracturing his foot in the opener against North Carolina. His replacement, highly regarded true freshman Ryan Hilinski started fast, throwing for a combined 606 yards against Charleston Southern and Alabama. But the California native struggled mightily in his first SEC road start.

At Missouri, Hilinski was just 13-for-30 passing for 166 yards with two costly errors. His attempt to spike the ball went backward for a fumble that resulted in a first-quarter Missouri touchdown. Later, with Carolina driving, Hilinski threw an interception that became a 100-yard pick-six for the Tigers.

“It’s hard to win on the road when your offense gives up 14 points,” said Muschamp afterward, adding that Hilinski was playing with a sore elbow.

Kentucky’s Sawyer Smith can relate. The grad transfer quarterback from Troy struggled Saturday in his first SEC road start, completing just 15 of 41 passes. He also threw a pick-six. He also was playing hurt, having banged up his shoulder in the second quarter. Smith insisted afterward his shoulder is 100 percent, but it’s something to keep an eye on this week.

Actually, for both Kentucky and South Carolina, the lost weekend had more to do with the run game. South Carolina couldn’t run the ball (24 yards on 16 carries) while Kentucky couldn’t stop it (241 yards on 40 carries). South Carolina’s leading rusher, Rico Dowdle, gained 17 yards. Meanwhile, Mississippi State had two rushers top 100. Kylin Hill’s 120 were not a surprise. The Bulldog back has eclipsed the century mark each of the first four games. MSU quarterback Garrett Shrader was the the killer. The bearded true freshman rushed for 125 yards on just 11 carries.

“We played old Kentucky ball,” UK wide receiver Lynn Bowden said.

It didn’t help that Kentucky faced a motivated Mississippi State. After a home loss to Kansas State and with SEC West powers Alabama, LSU and Auburn still waiting on the schedule, Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs badly needed to extend their domination of Mark Stoops’ troops in Starkville. MSU has won the last three Davis Wade meetings by a combined count of 115-36.

Now the script flips. Few things have gotten under South Carolina’s skin than its five-game losing streak to Kentucky. A streak that started under Steve Spurrier has continued under Muschamp with two of the defeats coming in Carolina’s backyard. Hoping to challenge Georgia and Florida as SEC East contenders, South Carolina’s failure to beat Kentucky has been a real sticking point.

That just ups this week’s stakes. Now 2-2 overall and 0-2 in the conference, Kentucky hasn’t lost three straight games since 2017 season. But a 1-4 start with a sixth straight loss to the Wildcats might drive the Gamecocks fan base over the edge and Muschamp out of a job.

Cornered chickens, indeed.

Next game

Kentucky at South Carolina

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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