Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 23-13 win at South Carolina:
1. Call them the mature road warriors -- with an edge
The local papers picked South Carolina to win in a walk. Between ESPN’s College GameDay and the SEC Network’s pregame show, seven of eight prognosticators picked South Carolina to win. (Only Kirk Herbstreit picked Kentucky.) Las Vegas, where they know what they are doing, made South Carolina a 5.5-point favorite. All of which didn’t sit well with the Cats.
“Like we hadn’t improved, too?” said Mark Stoops, the Kentucky head coach.
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Yes, Kentucky has improved. Saturday night at a pumped-up Williams-Brice Stadium proved it. And most of all, the Cats have matured. That was something the coaches preached during all of fall camp. With and older, more experienced team, Stoops said he believed his team was more mature. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another to prove it.
Kentucky proved it by taking an early punch. More than one, actually. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley hit Deebo Samuel on a 68-yard touchdown pass on the first offensive play of the game. Then Kentucky threw an interception. Its next series, Kentucky fumbled away the football. And the Cats shook it all off.
By the end of the first quarter, Kentucky led 7-6. At halftime it was 14-6 cats. Going into the final quarter, Kentucky led 17-6. Stephen Johnson settled down after that early interception and ended up hitting 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards. The defense settled down after that first big play and gave up just seven more points the rest of the night.
By the end, UK had won its fourth straight over the Gamecocks and its fourth true road game in its last five trips -- after starting 1-14 on the road under Stoops. The prognosticators. The road. The gut punches in the first few minutes. To Kentucky, now officially a mature team, none of it mattered.
2. For the offense, third down was the key down
A team just doesn’t convert five third downs in a row. Kentucky did Saturday night. A team doesn’t convert eight of its first 10 third-down situations Kentucky did. The Cats ended up nine of 16 on the night on third down for 56.2 percent -- UK owned a 34.6 percent conversion rate coming into the game -- but it was that early stretch of converting third down after third down that sparked the winning team’s offensive performance.
The first half especially, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran called a masterful game. Gran had the South Carolina off balance mixing up passes with runs, showing different formations and a variety of wrinkles. At one point, running back Benny Snell even threw a pass out of the wildcat formation that went through the hands of quarterback Stephen Johnson, lined up wide, who was also wide open.
“Stephen lost it in the lights,” Gran said afterward.
Gran also said “there were no magic plays” but there was much magic in the way he helped his offense find its rhythm after the rough start. Johnson had much to do with that, of course. The senior quarterback continues to be one cool customer. Nothing rattles him. And it was Johnson’s 54-yard scramble late in the fourth quarter that put the game away.
Also credit Snell, who after suffering bruised ribs last week, carried 32 times for 102 yards. Snell powered out the “aggravating yards” as Stoops called it. They allowed UK to win the time of possession battle by a whopping 36:49 to 23:11.
3. The defensive line is putting it on the line
For the third straight game, Kentucky’s defense held the opponents well under 100 yards rushing. Southern Miss gained just 55 yards on 38 carries in the opener. Eastern Kentucky gained 62 yards on 20 attempts last week. South Carolina managed 54 yards on 20 carries on Saturday night.
Remember, this is a Kentucky defense that ranked 110th nationally in run defense last season, giving up 228.2 yards per game. Through three games, the Cats are allowing just 57 rushing yards per game.
The difference? Start with the defensive line, which appears to be playing at a much higher level overall. Stoops said Saturday it goes back to fundamentals and playing the right way. And it showed Saturday night on a pair of occasions.
In the third quarter, down just 14-6, South Carolina faced a third-and-1 at the UK 49-yard line. Running back A.J. Turner was stopped for no gain. Carolina coach Will Muschamp decided to go for it on fourth down. Again, Turner was stopped for no gain. UK took over and drove for an Austin MacGinnis’ 27-yard field goal and a 17-6 lead.
Early fourth quarter, South Carolina faced a third-and-goal from the four-yard line when Bentley scrambled around right end, dived for the goal line but was stopped just short by a trio of Cats. Again, Muschamp rolled the dice on fourth down. Again, UK rose to the challenge, this time stopping Rico Dowdle for no gain.
“Those were huge,” said senior linebacker Courtney Love.
Now, all of a sudden, Saturday’s home game with Florida is setting up as something huge. As most everyone knows, the Cats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986. They were destroyed 45-7 by Florida last season in Gainesville. Now both teams are 1-0 in the SEC after Florida pulled out a 26-20 win over Tennessee on Saturday.
When was the last time Kentucky was 2-0 in the SEC? That would be 1977, when the Cats finished 6-0 in the conference and 10-1 overall. That was also the last year UK had a winning record in league play.
Kentucky 2017 football schedule
Kentucky-South Carolina final stats
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Third down conversions
Third down percentage
Average third down length