Kentucky makes move in wide-open SEC East with big win at South Carolina
Kentucky could do nothing right in the opening stages of the first quarter Saturday in a huge road test at South Carolina.
On the Gamecocks’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Jake Bentley found receiver Deebo Samuel on a post route off hard play-action. Because he’s perhaps the top playmaker in the SEC right now, Samuel took it the distance 68 yards for a touchdown.
The first two times the Wildcats had the ball, they committed a pair of turnovers. QB Stephen Johnson was intercepted by USC linebacker Skai Moore on an ill-advised throw over the middle, and then a high snap over Johnson’s head was recovered by ‘Cocks cornerback Jamyest Williams. Coach Will Muschamp and Co. had all the momentum at home.
But UK righted the ship on both sides of the ball and silenced a Williams-Brice Stadium crowd that had worked itself into a frenzy.
It’s time to start taking the ‘Cats seriously in the East, as they’re 3-0 and have opened conference play 1-0. When the evening started, South Carolina was supposedly the dark horse in the division. That moniker now belongs to Kentucky.
Johnson was efficient through the air after getting picked early, finishing the game 16-of-25 for 169 yards. He also ran for 74 yards on 7 carries, including a crucial 54-yarder on 3rd-and-8 late in the fourth quarter to essentially put this one on ice. Kicker Austin MacGinnis went on to boot a 21-yard field goal to make it a 23-13 final.
Credit the Wildcats’ work on special teams, as well. MacGinnis was a perfect 3-of-3 and showed a big leg in the process.
The Gamecocks, on the other hand, were a mess in the kicking game from start to finish. Not only did Alexander Woznick miss wide right on an extra point, but he and Parker White were a combined 0-for-3 on field-goal attempts.
The final numbers for Bentley weren’t too bad, as he was 24-of-36 passing for 304 yards and a pair of TDs. However, he was responsible for 2 INTs — including one on his last gasp to help drive the final nail in his own coffin — and did a lot of dinking and dunking. He eventually lost Samuel to injury in the third quarter, which was a big blow.
USC hasn’t been productive running the ball to take some of the pressure off Bentley. Twenty rushes produced just 54 yards.
UK tailback Benny Snell didn’t break off a run longer than 12 yards, but he managed to rack up 102 in workman-like fashion — he and all-purpose weapon Lynn Bowden Jr. took snaps in the Wildcat formation, too — on 30 tries.
As a result, the ‘Cats dominated time of possession 36:49 to 23:11. They also converted 9-of-16 third-down opportunities. The Cocks, conversely, were 3-of-12 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth down, including a failed 4th-and-goal from the 1. It’s worth noting that a chip-shot field goal would’ve made it a one-score game, but Muschamp rolled the dice and came up empty.
Yes, preseason favorite Georgia is 3-0, but the East has never been more wide open. Anybody can beat anybody in this division.
Florida may have survived Tennessee with a miracle touchdown pass on the last play of regulation, but the Gators are still a joke offensively. The Volunteers are amazing one minute and awful the next, plus they’re already 0-1 in league action.
In addition to Kentucky, Vanderbilt has announced itself as a genuine contender. At 2-0 and with wins over Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M, excitement outside of Nashville was held relatively in check. But after upsetting No. 18 Kansas State with yet another stellar defensive performance, the Commodores are now 3-0 and rapidly improving.
Even if the Bulldogs didn’t have much trouble with Samford between the hedges in Week 3, questions still remain in Athens.
The Wildcats were balanced offensively against South Carolina, running for 184 yards and throwing for Johnson’s aforementioned 169. No Stanley “Boom” Williams, no problem. Snell is clearly capable of handling the increased workload.
More important, UK appears to be making some strides on D. Stoops arrived in Lexington in 2013 with a reputation as a sound defensive mind — much like the rest of the Stoops family — but didn’t have the results to back it up. His unit made the Gamecocks one-dimensional by stopping the run and taking away Bentley’s deep ball.
The ‘Cats have a chance to make a real statement in Week 4. Florida comes to Kroger Field riding a 30-game winning streak in the series.
The Gators have been nothing short of pathetic on offense so far this season, and Kentucky likely won’t have to deal with running back Jordan Scarlett or wideout Antonio Callaway — both are indefinitely suspended with no return date set.
As we’ve seen time and again the past few years at Florida, its dastardly defense will eventually tucker out in the second half because its offense can’t stay on the field. It happened in the opener against Michigan, and it happened again Saturday versus Tennessee. The Gators have been a lopsided team for way too long now.
If Kentucky can put together and execute a similar game plan in seven days, Florida is in real jeopardy of seeing that streak come to an end.
Getting back to USC, it was a disappointing night for a program that appeared to be gaining steam. Following an escape of N.C. State and a blowout of Missouri, it was the Gamecocks who looked ready to upset the balance of power in the East.
Instead, the Wildcats seem to be serious threats. Johnson has solidified himself as a bona fide field general in the SEC and is now 8-4 as a starter. Snell is a workhorse and knows how to move the chains between the tackles. Not to mention the fact that an experienced defense is finally starting to thrive in Year 5 for Stoops.
UK fans usually can’t wait for basketball season to begin, but this football team justifiably has Big Blue Nation buzzing.