Rapid Reaction: Not a pretty win, but still a big win for Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. — There wasn’t much pretty about Saturday night’s matchup between South Carolina and Kentucky in Commonwealth Stadium. The two teams less resembled two prize fighters than two junkyard dogs fighting over a bone in an SEC where few bones are up for grabs.
Kentucky ended up being either the hungrier or luckier dog, er, Wildcat, as they rode a strong running game to a 17-10 win, their third victory in a row over the Gamecocks.
What it means
Kentucky: The Wildcats took another step toward the possibility of a decent season. While the light at the end of the bowl tunnel is dim, it would have been extinguished had Kentucky lost this game. Mark Stoops now owns a three-game winning streak over the Gamecocks, which is a benefit in his case to return for season five in Lexington.
South Carolina: Falling to 2-2 all but assures that the Gamecocks won’t go bowling in Will Muschamp’s first season. Most around the Gamecock program recognized this as a building year, which is more about player development and instilling Muschamp’s defense than wins and losses.
What I liked
Kentucky’s much-maligned defense showed signs of life from the start, allowing just 24 first-quarter yards and a single first down. It saved the game with a final hold late in the fourth quarter, too. Sacks played a huge role.
UK finally also appears to have settled into a run-centric offense, featuring Boom Williams as thunder and freshman Benny Snell as lightning. With Kentucky running to set up the pass, the Wildcats are better able to control clock and keep their defense on the sidelines.
South Carolina QB Brandon McIlwain continued his growth progress. McIlwain avoided negative plays early, taking what the defense gave him and making safe throws to his receivers. Carolina DE Darius English also had a great game with three sacks.
What I didn’t like
Kentucky lost the turnover battle 2-0. For a team that is limited on offense and frankly terrible on defense, that isn’t a luxury that the Wildcats can afford. QB Stephen Johnson made enough plays to win, but some of his more questionable decisions will become turnovers against the SEC’s better teams.
Carolina went conservative on third downs and gave the hobbling UK defense on several occasions. UK had allowed opponents to convert on 58 percent of their third down opportunities, but Carolina was just 3-for-12. SC’s ground game was more than pedestrian against a porous UK defense, grinding out just around 3.5 yards per carry.
Key play: Kentucky had moved the ball in the first half, but trailed 7-3 at intermission. On the opening drive of the second half, UK running back Stanley “Boom” Williams took a handoff and headed left. Carolina CB Chris Moody was the only man who could stop Williams, but the back shook a tackle from Moody and tight-roped the sideline on the way to a 43 yard touchdown run that gave UK a 10-7 lead. Kentucky never trailed again.
Consider Denzil Ware’s late sack of McIlwain runner-up.
Who’s the man: Kentucky RB Benny Snell barely played in the first three quarters, but his grinding running style lifted the UK offense in the 4th quarter and provided the margin for victory. Last week, Snell tied a school record with 4 rushing touchdowns. It wasn’t quite as glamorous this week, with 13 carries for 64 yards, but it was probably more important.
What’s next: Kentucky’s schedule takes a turn for the worse as UK prepares for a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama, before a home game against Vandy on Oct. 8. South Carolina is facing a pair of home games against Texas A&M and Georgia over the next two weeks. It’s a long path to six wins for both teams in this game.