Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 24-10 win over South Carolina:
1. Now 5-0, the Cats are Georgia’s top challenger in the East.
South Carolina was supposed to be favorite Georgia’s stiffest challenge in the SEC East. Or so the so experts said over the summer when the yearbooks were printed and polls were taken and consensus was formed. Florida would still be adjusting to new coach Dan Mullen. Tennessee didn’t have the talent. Missouri’s defense was suspect. That left Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks, with plenty of prominent players returning from a nine-win season.
What about Kentucky? The Cats got lost in the wash. Never mind that Mark Stoops had 17 starters back, including a running back who had rushed for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and an edge rusher who could be a first-round draft pick. Never mind that Stoops had more experience and depth on his roster than any of his six years in Lexington. Kentucky football was, of course, Kentucky football.
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Five weeks into the season, however, this is not your normal Kentucky football team. The Cats aren’t just 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC, they are a legitimate conference contender, a team that has surely emerged as Georgia’s top challenge in the East.
After all, South Carolina is now 2-2 overall and 1-2 in the SEC having been drilled by the Bulldogs 41-17 back on Sept. 8. Missouri lost to the Dawgs 43-29 last Saturday in Columbia. Tennessee took one on the chin 38-12 to Kirby Smart’s club Saturday in Athens. Georgia still must play Florida, but the Gators lost to UK 27-16 the second week of the season.
Plus, led by that edge rusher, Josh Allen, Kentucky’s defense continues to show it’s the real deal. The Cats gave up just 321 yards to South Carolina, the fifth straight opponent that has failed to gain 400 yards on the UK defense. Florida’s 360 yards is the most the Cats have allowed. Consider that UK held just three teams (Eastern Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt) under 360 yards all of last season.
Believing that UK had to limit South Carolina’s skill players, Stoops and defensive coordinator Matt House took some run defenders away to better cover the Carolina passing game. The Gamecocks did hit on a 58-yard touchdown pass when cornerback Lonnie Johnson went for the interception, but overall the Kentucky secondary came up with three big interceptions on the way to the team’s fifth straight victory over the Gamecocks.
There is a lot of football to be played between now and Nov. 3 when Georgia is scheduled to visit Kroger Field. Saturday’s trip to Texas A&M for the Jimbo Fisher/Mark Stoops reunion will be no picnic. And Kentucky visits high-scoring Missouri on Oct. 27. But right now, anyway, Georgia and Kentucky look like the two best teams in the East.
Kentucky total yardage
2. Should we be worried about the offense?
The first half, Eddie Gran’s offense was clicking. First possession, the Cats punted. Second possession, after Jordan Jones forced and recovered a South Carolina fumble, UK settled for a Miles Butler field goal. After that, however, the home team scored touchdowns on three straight possessions.
The first drive covered 75 yards in 11 plays with Terry Touchdown Wilson scoring from a yard out. The second march went 80 yards in eight plays with a determined A.J. Rose carrying defenders into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown. The third drive went 61 yards over six plays with Benny Snell scoring from four yards out for a 24-3 Kentucky lead with 4:53 left in the first half.
The second half was a different story, however. After gaining 252 yards in the first 30 minutes, Gran’s attack was held to just 75 yards in the second half. Not counting a kneel down at game’s end, UK had the football four possessions in the final two quarters. Results: missed field goal, punt, punt, interception.
The first drive of the second half, UK put together a 13-play march that stalled inside the South Carolina 30-yard line. When Snell was dropped for a 1-yard loss on first down at the 24, the Cats fell behind the chains. Wilson missed tight end C.J. Conrad with a pass, then missed Tavin Richardson move the middle. That left a 43-yard field goal attempt for Miles Butler, which he pushed left.
The offense stalled after that, producing consecutive three-and-outs. Final drive, the Cats started at the South Carolina 37, but committed three different penalties that ended up pushing the ball back to midfield before Wilson threw an interception.
Most of the fourth quarter was taken up by a 20-play South Carolina drive that ended with UK safety Mike Edwards making an interception in his own end zone.
“We can’t do that on the road,” said Gran of the second-half drought. “We can’t do that anywhere, really. We have things to work on.”
Snell went over the 100-yard mark, then slipped back under when he lost six yards on his final three carries. He finished with 99 yards on 28 carries. Rose gained 38 yards on seven carries. And Wilson ended up with 59 yards on nine attempts. As a team, the Cats gained 195 yards on the ground, out-rushing South Carolina 195-128.
3. Are you allowed to win SEC Defensive Player of the Week three times before October?
Josh Allen has won it twice. And UK’s star outside linebacker/defensive end could easily win it again after recording three sacks and four tackles for loss in the win over Gamecocks. Asked which game of his was better, last week against Mississippi State or this week against the Gamecocks, Allen replied, “This week. I got sacks this week. I didn’t get a sack until the fourth quarter last week.”
Still, Allen did enough against the Bulldogs to earn co-SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors, the second time he has won the award already this season. And now, as you might expect, offenses are using extra blockers, chipping or hitting him with running backs as they go out on pass routes. It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
“Oh man,” said cornerback Derrick Baity when asked about playing with Allen. “It’s much easier to play back there with Josh doing what he’s doing. I think we feed off him and he feeds off us.”
Surely Allen’s constant pressure is one reason Kentucky was able to come up with three interceptions on Saturday. Baity, Darius West and Mike Edwards all came up with picks. West now has two on the season. Baity made a big interception in Kentucky’s win at South Carolina last season.
Kentucky forced four turnovers on the night with Jones forcing and recovering a fumble on South Carolina’s first offensive series. “I punched it out,” said Jones, who gave credit to fellow linebacker Kash Daniels for telling him to focus on that maneuver. The four turnovers were the most UK has forced since the win at Vanderbilt last season.
That’s the thing. Stoops said afterward that the Cats can still play better. Baity said the team did not play “up to our standards.” And Kentucky is 5-0 for the first time since 2007 and 3-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1977. Stoops’ club needs two more wins in its final five SEC games for the program to post its first winning conference record since 1977.
Kentucky football 2018