I finally got to see the game this morning, and what a game it was. ESPN3 is simply God's gift to the football fan who has a life outside of fandom.
I guess as cathartic moments go, this one is about as satisfying as any I have dealt with in a long time, probably since 2007 when Kentucky finally defeated the Louisville Cardinals for the first time since 2002. It is highly reminiscent of the "Stevie got loose" moment in that game when Kentucky, on it's final drive, found Steve Johnson in a broken coverage for the game-winning touchdown. This time, Randall Cobb got loose (both on the field and off, but more on that later) for a touchdown in the waning moments of the game on similarly broken coverage. Props to Mike Hartline as well, who delivered a perfect pass to Cobb while he was in the process of being deposited firmly on his backside by the South Carolina pressure.
Gone is the 17-game winning streak by Spurrier, consigned to history by what was arguably a faux pas on his part, calling a late time-out that seemed unnecessary and ill-timed. Gone is the ten-game winning streak by South Carolina over Kentucky, similarly removed to the dust bin by a remarkable defensive performance in the second half by a much-maligned Kentucky defense that allowed 450 yards in the first half, mostly due to the heroics of Marcus Lattimore in the role of receiver utilizing the wheel route.
Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, Lattimore sprained his ankle early in the second half, and suddenly the Gamecock offense began to look like it was playing on one leg. They abandoned the running game against one of the weakest rushing defenses in college football and began throwing the ball around against one of the better pass defenses in the SEC. Defensive coordinator Steve Brown began doing what DC's should do against teams that don't seem to have a running threat -- sending extra players into the backfield.
The result was a team that gained 450 net yards in the first half gaining only 167 in the second, and a rejuvenated UK offense finding the end zone three separate times, enough to hand the Gamecocks their second road loss this year.
Here are some observations about the game, and its aftermath.
- What the heck was Steve Brown thinking trying to cover Lattimore with defensive ends? That is madness. After getting burned by South Carolina on the wheel route twice and just missing a third, you'd think he would avoid the obvious definition of insanity, as if the inherent absurdity in the star tailback versus DE wasn't enough.
- Gamecock fans are rightly blaming Steve Spurrier for this loss, not just for the inexplicable timeout call with :11 seconds left but for abandoning the running game with an 18-point lead after Lattimore went down. I have to agree, that's tough to explain.
- Turnovers really helped Kentucky in this one.
- Great game for Winston Guy. He not only led Kentucky in tackles with 8.5, but also made a crucial pick that lead to Kentucky's only touchdown in the first half.
- Mike Hartline was spectacular. This game should remove all doubt about him. It has as far as I'm concerned. Hartline never panicked, and played as if the game was in slow motion for him. He never once threw the ball into trouble, and had two passes dropped, one that likely would have been a touchdown. Game ball.
- Randall Cobb did what he always does -- worked hard to win the game. This time, he succeeded.
- Chris Matthews has arrived. Nice to see. Not only that, LaRod King is a legitimate target. Kentucky's receiving corps has finally matured into a major threat.
- Ryan Tydlacka was terrific in the punting game, and the coverage was excellent.
- Russell runs hard, but he reminds me a bit of Alfonso Smith. He tends to run into piles too much. But he is a reliable receiver, Derrick Locke-like, out of the backfield.
- You have to love how animated Spurrier is on the sidelines, how intense and seemingly mindless of his antics. He reminds of a little boy sometimes, in a good way.
Finally a comment on a couple of other things. First, the Randall Cobb tweets after the game dressing down a section of the fans. Unlike Matt Jones, I am taking Cobb's side on this one. Some Kentucky fans have truly been fair-weather when it comes to football, and you cannot blame Randall Cobb for feeling jilted by the demonstrable fact that Kentucky fans, taken as a whole, relegate the football team to second-class status. I also don't blame him for taking this moment of catharsis to purge his soul. It is as good a time is any.
On the other hand, I feel constrained to point out to Randall that there is no mystery about Kentucky fans, and if you seriously expected to come here change their mindset even with all the excellence you show on the football field, that was misguided thinking, my friend. As you grow up an mature, you will learn that there are some things which, despite your relentless determination, cannot and will not change. This is one of those things. I love you as much as any UK player, basketball or football, but reality, like gravity, is a bitch. But I admire your willingness to bring the heat on that, as futile as it is, and even though I don't qualify as one of the targets of his angst, I do understand, and even appreciate, your frustration. Don't let others tell you it was wrong, it was not. Maybe not perfect or particularly wise, but not wrong.
Lastly, Joker Phillips. How satisfying must this victory be, accomplishing in his first season what his predecessor and mentor could not accomplish in six? With a combination of gutsy play calling on fourth down (never forget the winning touchdown was a do-or-die affair, unlike 2007) and a solid, pass-first game plan against a team who has had trouble against the pass all year, Phillips' team earned this win with a combination of cojones, determination and skill.
This win places Kentucky back on track for another bowl season, and oddly enough, still in contention to actually win the SEC East. Yes, that's a long shot, and an improving Georgia Bulldogs team will be all the Wildcats can handle next week. Still, this is a bona fide opportunity for Phillips to take "Operation Win" to an unanticipated high level.