The Kentucky Wildcats snapped a 17-game losing streak against SEC opponents dating back to 2011 with a 17-7 win at home over the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday afternoon. The Cats led 17-7 at halftime and relied on an impressive performance by the defense in the second half to hang on to a 10-point victory.

The win was Mark Stoops’ first career win over a conference foe as UK’s coach, and the win was Kentucky’s third of the year, topping the Wildcats’ win total each of the last two years.

What it means: The win is obviously a meaningful one in Kentucky’s rebuilding process, as the Cats proved to themselves, their fans and the rest of the SEC that they can compete in the wide open SEC East. The Wildcats won ugly against the weakest team in the conference, but for a program with just four total wins the last two years combined, every win is a big win. This victory will give Kentucky something to build from in its final eight games of the year, and at 1-1 in conference play the Cats are right in the thick of the SEC East race. It wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky found a way to win a game it absolutely had to win, and that alone deserves a pat on the back.

What I liked: The aggressive play by Kentucky’s front seven. The Wildcats sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Wade Freebeck four times and pressured him often, causing him to look uncomfortable in the pocket all game long. As a result, Freebeck was just 8 of 25 passing for only 85 yards, and thanks to the pressure by the front seven Freebeck threw three second half interceptions in a 10-point loss. The Commodores had even less success running the ball, carrying the ball 22 times for 54 yards, an average of just 2.5 yards per carry. The Kentucky offense looked shaky at best in the second half, but a dominant performance by the defense kept UK in front from start to finish.

Who’s the man: Mark Stoops is the man after recording his first conference win as a coach in the SEC. The win is as meaningful to him personally as it is to the Kentucky program, as it shows he can not only attract talented players to Lexington, but can coach them up as well.  Stoops is a defensive-minded coach, and his defense was the difference in Saturday’s victory. A number of the freshmen he brought to Kentucky made a huge impact in the win, including Boom Williams (eight touches for 66 yards). Stoops was prepared to coach Kentucky to a victory, and whether he admits it or not, the win will instill as much confidence in his coaching as it will in the players.

Key Play: Kentucky marched down the field on its opening drive of the game, moving the ball 99 yards capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Patrick Towles to sophomore wideout Ryan Timmons. Timmons had to do a little bit of running after the catch to get to the goal line, and appeared to fumble the ball just moments before he crossed the line. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field, and upon further review the officials felt there was not enough evidence to overturn the call. Had it been overturned and ruled a fumble (recovered by Vandy for a touchback), it would have cost UK seven points and been a crushing blow to end a drive that spanned from goal line to goal line. And in a 17-7 final, those seven points were critical. That touchdown was the key play of the game, and that drive was Kentucky’s best drive all season.

What’s next: The Wildcats will stay in Lexington next weekend to host a ranked South Carolina squad that has been inconsistent early in the year. Kentucky will have an opportunity to build from its first SEC win in three years, and the Gamecocks will be on upset alert against a team they lost to in Lexington just four years ago. South Carolina will be favored entering the matchup, but Kentucky proved it is not a team to be overlooked the remainder of the season, especially in SEC East contests.