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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s loss at South Carolina

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Game day: Kentucky at South Carolina

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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 24-7 loss at South Carolina on Saturday:

1. Losing Terry Wilson was a bigger blow than we thought.

And we thought it was big for the Cats to lose their second-year starting quarterback to a torn patellar tendon the second game of the season. That’s not a knock on backup Sawyer Smith, who is playing with an apparent shoulder and wrist injury. But for the second straight game, Smith was largely ineffective.

Eddie Gran’s unit managed just 212 yards of total offense. For the second straight game, the Cats completed less than 50 percent of their passes, hitting on just 13 of 34 for a meager 97 yards without a touchdown and with an interception. At Mississippi State, Smith was picked off just four plays into the game. (That went for a pick-six.) Saturday night, Smith was picked off on the fifth play.

The inability to convert on a third down has been an absolute killer. The Cats failed to convert on any of their final five third down situations in the 29-21 loss to Florida. They went 1-for-12 on third down in that 28-13 loss at Mississippi State last week. They were were 0-for-9 against South Carolina before finally converting. That’s a stretch of 1-for-26 on third down.

“You can’t win that way,” said Gran afterward.

Part of that surely goes back to Smith’s health. Head coach Mark Stoops indicated afterward that with UK not having a game next Saturday, the grad transfer from Troy would probably not throw this week. And both Stoops and Gran said if they had it to do over again they would have made a quarterback change sooner.

Something has to change, that’s for sure.

2. The defense (sort of) kept the Cats in the game.

Despite getting no help from the offense, Brad White’s defense did not play poorly, at least after the night’s first drive when the Gamecocks came out and hit the visitors in the mouth, marching 75 yards in 11 plays for a 7-0 lead.

UK held South Carolina under 400 yards. The hosts ended up with 387 yards on 73 plays for an average of 5.3 per play. Not terrible. The Gamecocks did rush for 247 yards, the second straight game where Kentucky’s defense allowed well over 240 yards rushing.

But South Carolina’s second touchdown was set up when Smith fumbled the ball away on a sack during UK’s first possession of the second half. Carolina’s Rico Dowdle went 30 yards for a touchdown on the very next play. And the Gamecocks’ final score certainly was aided by wearing down the Kentucky defense. The Gamecocks went 85 yards on seven plays for a score with 7:48 to play. All seven plays were run.

No doubt White, in his first year as defensive coordinator, will use the bye week to work on the Cats’ run defense. For all the focus on the team’s young secondary, the defense needs to do a better job stopping the run.

3. Did I mention, this is a bye week?

Just in the nick time. Kentucky has lost three straight games. It is 0-3 in the SEC for the first time since 2013. Starting with the fourth quarter of the Florida game, it has been outscored 74-20. It has a banged-up quarterback, who began the year as the backup to its veteran quarterback. It has other assorted injuries that need to heal.

Not to mention its psyche. We knew it would be tough to overcome the graduation losses from last year’s 10-3 team. We knew that Stoops had young players in important positions. We knew it would take time for those players to mature and develop.

Still, in back-to-back weeks against teams that needed a win, Kentucky was not able to match the opponents’ intensity or sense of urgency. It didn’t happen last week in Starkville. It didn’t happen Saturday night in Columbia. UK needs the off week to hit the reset button.

“I think it’s coming at the right time,” said Stoops.

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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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