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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s impressive win at South Carolina

UK's Courtney Love: Fourth-down stops were huge

Kentucky stopped South Carolina on a fourth-and-one from midfield and a fourth-and-goal from the one. Linebacker Courtney Love talks about their impact.
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Kentucky stopped South Carolina on a fourth-and-one from midfield and a fourth-and-goal from the one. Linebacker Courtney Love talks about their impact.

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.

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 safety Mike Edwards talks about South Carolina not shaking hands before the game, fourth down stops and more after UK's win.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about third down efficiency, overcoming the rough start and the wildcat formation after win at South Carolina.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell on the much maligned wildcat formation, which worked well in 23-13 win at South Carolina.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell after carrying 32 times for 102 yards in win at South Carolina.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team's 23-13 win at South Carolina.

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson said South Carolina's refusal to shake hands during coin toss before game was motivation in 23-13 win.

UK linebacker Courtney Love shared the love with Wildcats fans in Columbia, S.C., for the Cats' victory Saturday night.

Kentucky players and coaches participate in the Cat Walk prior to their game against South Carolina at William Brice Stadium.

Kentucky 2017 football schedule

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

9/2/17

@Southern Miss

24

17

W

1-0

 

9/9/17

Eastern Kentucky

27

16

W

2-0

 

9/16/17

@South Carolina

23

13

W

3-0

1-0

9/23/17

Florida

     

9/30/17

Eastern Michigan

     

10/7/17

Missouri

     

10/21/17

@Miss State

     

10/28/17

Tennessee

     

11/4/17

Ole Miss

     

11/11/17

@Vanderbilt

     

11/18/17

@Georgia

     

11/25/17

Louisville

     

Kentucky-South Carolina final stats

Category

Kentucky

S Carolina

Final score

23

13

First downs

20

14

Total offense

353

358

Plays

73

57

Yards per play

4.8

6.3

Rushing offense

184

54

Rushing attempts

47

20

Yards per rush

3.9

2.7

Passing yards

169

304

Comp-Attempts-Int

16-26-1

24-37-2

Pass efficiency

108.4

140.9

Third down conversions

9-of-16

3-of-12

Third down percentage

56.2

25.0

Average third down length

6.1

5.1

Turnovers

2

2

Fumbles lost

1

0

Net punting

41.0

40.7

Field goals-attempts

3-for-3

0-for-3

Penalties-yards

4-10

7-45

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