Mark Story

How Kentucky and South Carolina match up — with a game prediction

A Woodruff, S.C., product, Kentucky senior wide receiver Blake Bone will be facing his homestate school for the final time when UK visits South Carolina on Saturday night. Bone had three catches for 93 yards in UK’s 27-16 win over Eastern Kentucky last week.
A Woodruff, S.C., product, Kentucky senior wide receiver Blake Bone will be facing his homestate school for the final time when UK visits South Carolina on Saturday night. Bone had three catches for 93 yards in UK’s 27-16 win over Eastern Kentucky last week. aslitz@herald-leader.com

How Kentucky (2-0, 0-0 SEC) and South Carolina (2-0, 1-0) match up — with a game prediction:

Quarterbacks

Through two games, Kentucky senior Stephen Johnson has raised his completion percentage (61.9 percent) more than six points from last season (55.7). The 6-foot-2, 185-pound product of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has thrown for two TDs and has run for two, and he has not yet turned the ball over. South Carolina’s 2016 season turned for the better when Gamecocks Coach Will Muschamp inserted true freshman Jake Bentley as starting QB. With Bentley, the Gamecocks won four of their final seven games in 2016 and have won their first two this season. In 2017, the 6-3, 220-pound sophomore is completing 61.4 percent of his passes with four TDs vs. one interception.

Advantage: Even

Running backs

Although battling sore ribs, Kentucky sophomore Benny Snell returned to his 2016 form last week in the second half of UK’s 27-16 win over Eastern Kentucky, running for 100 of his 103 yards after halftime. Last year, the 5-11, 223-pound product of Westerville, Ohio, had 73 yards on 16 carries in UK’s 17-10 win over South Carolina and scored the game-winning TD. South Carolina’s Rico Dowdle started seven games in 2016 as a true freshman and finished with 764 rushing yards. Dowdle (26 carries, 75 yards) is listed as the Gamecocks’ No. 1 back this year, but North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, a sophomore, was South Carolina’s most productive runner at Missouri (78 yards on 14 carries).

Advantage: Kentucky

Wide receivers

Kentucky senior Blake Bone, a product of Woodruff, S.C., travels to his home state off one of the best games (three catches for 93 yards vs. EKU) of his Kentucky career. Senior Garrett Johnson caught four passes vs. South Carolina in 2016. Needing additional playmaking, can UK get highly touted true freshman Lynn Bowden untracked this week? As a junior, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel (10 catches, 128 yards, two receiving TDs, one rushing) has emerged as one of the most explosive players in the SEC. Sophomore Bryan Edwards (10 catches, 90 yards) also is capable.

Advantage: South Carolina

Tight ends

This is a matchup of two of the SEC’s best. Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad leads the Wildcats in catches (five) and receiving TDs (two). South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst caught three passes for 69 yards at Missouri, including a 39-yard TD. The 6-5, 250-pound junior also had a 2-yard TD run at Mizzou off a jet sweep.

Advantage: Even

Offensive line

Kentucky sophomore Landon Young is now No. 1 on the depth chart at left tackle. UK Coach Mark Stoops says the ex-Lafayette High School star “is playing well” but needs to improve in pass protection. Against EKU, errant shotgun snaps thwarted two Kentucky drives. Senior Nick Haynes and junior Bunchy Stallings are bracketed atop the depth chart at center. South Carolina right guard Cory Helms (38 career starts) and center Alan Knott (30) are the heart and soul of the Carolina O-line. The Gamecocks have allowed only three quarterback sacks in two games, but South Carolina is 12th in the SEC (two spots behind Kentucky) in rushing.

Advantage: Even

Defensive line

With Kentucky allowing only 58.5 yards a game rushing through two games, the UK defensive front has been the season’s most pleasant surprise. Nose guards Naquez Pringle (four tackles), Matt Elam (four) and true freshman Quinton Bohanna (two) have combined for 10 stops. As the competition improves, will UK’s improved defensive-line play continue? South Carolina DE D.J. Wonnum has been a disruptive force, with four tackles for loss and two QB sacks. Tackle Taylor Stallworth (11 tackles) anchors the interior.

Advantage: Even

Linebackers

Kentucky junior OLB Josh Allen (12 tackles, three TFL, two sacks, two hurries, one forced fumble) has been, arguably, UK’s best player in 2017. UK will be without WLB Jordan Jones (13 tackles) due to a shoulder injury. Ex-Warren East star Eli Brown (24 tackles last year; 2 this year) will replace Jones. After making 16 stops vs. North Carolina State, South Carolina MLB T.J. Brunson is tied for second in the SEC with 22 tackles. WLB Skai Moore (15 tackles) is back after missing last season due to neck surgery.

Advantage: South Carolina

Defensive backs

Finally healthy after a series of leg injuries, Kentucky junior free safety Darius West leads the Wildcats with 18 tackles. Strong safety Mike Edwards intercepted a pass against EKU, the fourth of his career. South Carolina starts three seniors in the secondary — safeties Chris Lammons (14 tackles) and D.J. Smith (11 tackles) and CB JaMarcus King (11 tackles).

Advantage: South Carolina

Special teams

After a stellar showing at Southern Mississippi, Kentucky’s special teams regressed vs. EKU. UK kickoff coverage surrendered an average of 35.2 yards on four Eastern returns. Graduate transfer punter Matt Panton shined in week one — 42 yards average on nine kicks, with five inside the 20. Last week, he averaged 38.8 yards on four kicks and stopped only one inside the 20. South Carolina’s special teams were huge in the victory over Missouri. For the second straight game, Deebo Samuel returned a kickoff for a TD. Javon Kinlaw blocked a Mizzou field goal attempt. Punter Joseph Charlton had a 73-yard kick. For the season, Charlton is averaging 44.7 yards a punt. Gamecocks place-kicker Alexander Woznick is 1-for-2 on field goals, having made from 33 yards and missed from 32.

Advantage: South Carolina

Prediction

South Carolina 24, Kentucky 19

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