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Countdown to Columbia: Keys to the Game for Kentucky Wildcats vs South Carolina Gamecocks

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We break down how Kentucky needs to improve in order to beat South Carolina for a fourth straight time.

NCAA Football: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

After a signature win over arch-rival Louisville capped off the program’s first winning season since 2009, and with a solid group of experienced, talented players returning, Kentucky entered the 2017 football season with some serious momentum.

But the first two performances of 2017 have left the Big Blue Nation a bit skeptical of how the rest of the year will play out. Many thought the Wildcats were more than seven points better than Southern Miss and many expected more than 254 yards in the first game from an offense that average 420 yards/game in 2016.

Then came Eastern Kentucky, where UK trailed at halftime and needed to force a huge fumble in the red zone in order to swing the momentum back in their favor and regain the lead. Fans and analysts alike expected the Cats to dominate the Colonels, but the 11-point victory Saturday seemed to yield more questions than answers for Kentucky.

In life, and in football, perspective is important. Things are never quite as good or quite as bad as they may seem. For example, I personally was devastated after Kentucky blew a huge first-half lead and dropped its home opener last season to Southern Miss. I was equally discouraged by the blowout loss that followed at Florida. With that 0-2 record, Kentucky’s chances of reaching six wins, much less seven, seemed slim. But under the leadership of a backup transfer quarterback and a seemingly unknown freshman running back, the Cats rebounded and ended up reaching the seven-win plateau, tying Kentucky’s best regular season record since 1984.

Yet, here many Kentucky fans sit in 2017, cautiously awaiting a date with South Carolina and second-year Coach Will Muschamp on Saturday in Columbia, wondering what UK team will show up for the Gamecocks’ home opener. Despite the fact that the Wildcats have won three straight against South Carolina, the Gamecocks seem to have more momentum entering Saturday after upsetting NC State in week one and taking a conference win on the road at Missouri in week two.

So what should the Big Blue Nation expect on Saturday? What does Kentucky need to do to build on their first two wins and knock off the Gamecocks for the fourth year in a row?

1. Austin MacGinnis needs to have a better game than he did against EKU. The senior kicker is the second-leading point scorer in school history, and he made two potentially touchdown-saving tackles on kickoffs against the Colonels, but he needs more hang time and more distance on kickoffs vs. South Carolina if Kentucky is going to be successful on Saturday. Gamecocks returner Deebo Samuel has taken two kickoff returns 97 yards each for scores in his first two games. MacGinnis had one touchback on his first kickoff against EKU, but his next four barely crossed the goal line (if at all) and did not seem to have the necessary hang time to allow the kickoff team to get to the return man. Luckily, Austin seems to shine when the lights come on.

2. Saturday night needs to be Lynn Bowden’s coming out party. Much like Bennie Snell exploded onto the scene in the third game of last season vs. New Mexico State, Bowden is hungry, has shown intensity, and should finally get the opportunity to showcase his skills on Saturday. I liked what I saw from him against EKU, despite the fact that he was kicked out for targeting just six minutes into the game. I think it could be a blessing that the Gamecocks had limited plays to prepare for Bowden’s dynamic athleticism.

3. The offensive line has to play smarter. Against Southern Miss, five of Kentucky’s eight penalties were committed by either the offensive line or tight ends. These five penalties occurred on four separate drives, each resulting in a punt from the Wildcats. One of those five was holding, which happens, but the other four were false starts. Kentucky committed six penalties against EKU, four of which came at the hands of the O-Line or tight ends. Tackle Kyle Meadows was called for holding and a false start in two consecutive drives, both resulting in 3-and-outs for the Cats. There have also been at least four plays in the first two games where the center has snapped the ball too high to either Johnson at quarterback or Snell in the wildcat. In all four of those plays, Kentucky either lost yards and had to punt on the same series, or the lost yards resulted in a turnover on downs. If the high snap issue continues, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to have your quarterback go under center every now and then.

4. For Kentucky’s offense: If ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it with ‘gimmicky’ plays. Kentucky’s first two drives against EKU included a reverse, a couple of shuffle passes, and more failed attempts at executing the wildcat formation. These are the types of plays a coordinator usually calls when his team is challenged in terms of personnel and/or scheme. Kentucky’s bread and butter plays seemed to work fine against the Colonels. They were running the ball effectively, and Stephen Johnson completed 68 percent of his passes. Stick to your bread and butter until it fails.

5. Continue to protect the football. Stephen Johnson has yet to commit a turnover through his first two games. The only turnover Kentucky has committed so far was a Benny Snell red-zone fumble against Southern Miss. Keep winning the turnover battle, and you’ll keep winning games.

Notice I didn’t include anything about the defense, as they have been playing with the type of “bend but don’t break” mentality needed to win the first two games. But it was a bit concerning how much space EKU’s receivers had to work with in short passes last Saturday, especially early on. If South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel gets the ball with that kind of space, it will mean big trouble for Kentucky this Saturday.