For many Kentucky fans, Saturday’s game with the Gamecocks was the last straw. After a tough loss in its home opener to Southern Miss, and a pathetic showing in Gainesville against Florida, Coach Mark Stoops desperately needed this win to keep the Big Blue Nation engaged with his team. The Wildcats delivered, outlasting South Carolina in a 17-10 victory at Commonwealth Stadium, moving its record to 2-2 and 1-1 in the SEC.
Here’s a look at what they’re saying:
Actually meeting @WoodDro52 before the game actually got me hyped man thanks for the words of encouragement before the game— zel (@ejhs18) September 25, 2016
It’s definitely nice having a few former Cats in the NFL that have been legitimate starters and contributors for years. It’s even better when they come back and can provide some perspective to Kentucky’s young guys and get them excited.
Denzil Ware on criticism of UK's defense: "You talking about the Lee Corso thing? ... Didn't he coach at Louisville or somethin'?"— Alex Forkner (@AlexForknerTCP) September 25, 2016
I never thought I’d say this, but thank you, Lee Corso. After calling Kentucky out on College Gameday for having the worst defense in the country, the unit responded in a big way.
Mark Stoops: "Feels good to be .500. Can't change the past, but we can change our future."— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) September 25, 2016
Can we change it enough to be competitive against a number-one ranked Alabama team on the road? Time will tell.
I Love My Coach And We Will Go To War For Him And That's Not A Rumor !!— Matt Elam™6⃣9⃣ (@FballIsLife69) September 25, 2016
You have to love any player saying that they will go to war for their coach. The second half of the tweet was in response to a rumor that swarmed the Big Blue Nation on Saturday afternoon like a brood of pissed off bees. After the Cats got the win, the rumor was put to rest by both players and members of the media alike.
And to answer the million questions, it is false. Now celebrate— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) September 25, 2016
If you didn’t hear the rumor, you probably live under a rock. But there is no sense in repeating it at this point, because it indeed appears to be false.
Why would you ever try to hurdle a dude who is 6’4”?
The numbers don’t lie.
Here’s how Kentucky Sports Radio’s Freddie Maggard analyzed Kentucky’s Offensive vs. the Gamecocks:
— Kentucky racked up 351 total yards in spite of a minus 2 turnover margin while going up against the Southeastern Conference’s 4th best scoring defense. RBs Boom Williams, JoJo Kemp, and freshman sensation Benny Snell Jr. are proving to be a formidable trio. Williams went over 100 yards for the second time this season by rushing for 123 yards off 15 carries. Snell again seemed invincible and stubborn to be tackled by racking up 77 tough, physical yards. Kemp provided spark and a breather with 4 carries for 16 yards.
— Stephen Johnson was sacked 4 times but completed 11 passes for 135 yards. His steady impact was mostly felt in the Run/Pass/Option scheme through quick decisions and persistency. UK did not attempt a 4th quarter pass as it buckled down in the run game. This offensive philosophy change seemed to work well.
— UK won the time of possession battle 32:40 to 27:20. Third downs were not pleasant: 4/13. But, it converted a crucial 4th down to seal the win late in the 4th quarter.
— During the game I received several messages that the offensive line struggled. In actuality, UK rotated several front-line players while physically wearing down a good South Carolina front seven. One grouping included true freshman Landon Young, redshirt freshman Logan Stenberg as well as sophomores Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo Adjei. It faced a salty, veteran group. Overall, the OL played an operative football game.
— South Carolina came into Saturday allowing a 31% touchdown ratio in the Red Zone. Kentucky was 50% for the night as it scored on a WildSnell, 1-yard TD run.
— Kentucky rushed the football 50 times for 216 yards. My priority key to the game was for the Cats to rush for 200. Check.
— Turnovers continue to be this team’s own worst enemy. Kayaune Ross fumbled a Stephen Johnson pass in the first quarter which could have taken the wind out of the Big Blue sails. It didn’t. Johnson later overshot a wide open receiver which resulted in his first thrown interception of his career.
— This team’s lack of offensive physicality was called out during many pregame television shows. Kentucky countered by exercising a rugged, 2nd half game plan.
And what the Courier-Journal’s John Hale reported on Kentucky’s Defense:
Sophomore outside linebacker Denzil Ware heard about Corso’s comments on Twitter then found the video of the segment to make sure the quote was accurate.
“It was real,” Ware said after Saturday night's 17-10 win over South Carolina. “So I just got on social media and I sent it to all the linebackers and everybody on defense and I said, ‘We just go out here and just get this win and play our game, forget the critics, forget everybody that’s outside looking in. We know how we can ball. Let’s just play our game. Let’s just play Kentucky football.’ That’s what we did tonight.”
Corso was far from the only voice disparaging Kentucky’s defense this week.
Little of the outside criticism could match UK coach Mark Stoops’ comments after Wednesday’s practice, when he told reporters if UK’s defenders didn’t grow up quickly “we're gonna look like the same bunch of crap” then added, “We're not real tough, we're not real smart and we've got a long way to go.”
Players made note of those public comments too.
“We noticed it, and we deserved to get chewed out because we came to practice and were fighting all week and we took a break,” junior nose guard Naquez Pringle said. “That’s not what Coach Stoops wants. Coach Stoops wants us to finish, and we have to give him that.”
For the first time this season, Kentucky’s defense finally posted a performance worthy of praise against South Carolina.
UK entered the night ranked 122nd of 128 teams in the NCAA's top division in total defense (528 yards per game) after surrendering at least 500 yards in each of its first three games but held the Gamecocks to 268 yards.
Kentucky ranked 127th of 128 teams in third-down defense (57.7 percent) entering the game but held South Carolina to 3 of 13 third-down conversions (23.1 percent).
“It was just the players,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “The players just played. All the credit goes to them. They played hard and executed and finished.”
Stoops saw his players respond to his Wednesday criticism even before the game.
“I just wasn’t going to let them accept it on Wednesday,” Stoops said. “It’s not OK. The way we’ve been playing, it’s not OK. Every opportunity we go out there is to get better. We don’t go out there just to kill time.”
Finally, the Herald-Leader’s John Clay asked the question, “has Kentucky Football found its secret sauce?”
At least Saturday, Gran adjusted his scheme to fit his talent. Kentucky ran the football 50 times. It threw it 19. The 72/28 run/pass ratio was the highest by a Kentucky team against a FBS team since the famous Matt Roark Game, the win over Tennessee on Nov. 26, 2011. With Roark, a wide receiver, playing quarterback, Kentucky ran the ball 60 times while throwing it just four. UK won 10-7 that day, the Cats’ first over the Vols since 1984.
Obviously, such ball control helps a struggling defense. Saturday, it kept Stoops’ troops off the field for large periods of time. And the defense responded. True, South Carolina entered Saturday with the second-worst offense in the SEC. Still, Kentucky’s defense was more aggressive, energetic and successful than at any previous point in the young season.
This isn’t to say UK has found its secret sauce. The new formula, if that’s what it is, isn’t likely to make much of a dent at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide will be prohibitive favorites.
And yet, at least Kentucky experienced some success Saturday. It controlled the ball on offense. It ran to the ball on defense. It looked like an improved football team. Maybe, just maybe, it figured out the best way for it to play.
Kentucky travels to take on the number-one ranked Crimson Tide this Saturday, October 1, at 7 p.m. on ESPN.