13 seconds into Saturday night's game, I was already on Twitter to follow up on South Carolina's Jake Bentley hitting Deebo Samuel for a 68-yard touchdown. Two plays into the following drive, Kentucky's starting quarterback Stephen Johnson threw a blatant interception.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops must have lit a fire under the Wildcats defense as they took the field, however, as they forced the Gamecocks to five yards and a missed field goal.
“Key, right at the beginning,” said Stoops of that critical series. “Like I said, we’re gonna take a punch and our defense battled in there and kept us in the game early on.”
Not only did Kentucky eventually find momentum to outscore South Carolina 23-7 for the rest of the game, but the Wildcats’ defense held the Gamecocks to three punts, two interceptions, two missed field goals, two turnovers on downs, a missed FG and just one TD.
“Big time. Just fundamentally playing the right way and playing with some passion and energy assignment sharp,” Stoops said of the defense stepping up. “That’s what gets so aggravating, the structure of things break down. That was something we were going to get fixed. People may run it; they may throw it, whatever, but our structure’s going to be right and I think we’re on the right track.”
Kentucky won the game, 23-13, as a -5.5 underdog. It's their first 3-0 start under Stoops and extends their win streak to four over the Gamecocks.
“It was a great team victory,” said Stoops. “The strength of our team is the team. I’ve told you guys since Day 1 that they have a winning mentality and a winning work ethic, and you’re seeing that. Everybody wants to panic because it’s gotta look pretty all the time. Winning is what matters. And we have an edge and attitude about us because we like it that way. I’m just proud of the team.”
The Wildcats’ front seven, ranked third in the nation for run defense, managed to get to the quarterback while also stopping the run. Kentucky registered three sacks and allowed just 54 rushing yards on 20 carries (2.7 YPC). Without star LB Jordan Jones, Kentucky turned to their FS Derrick Baity to lead the defense. He had 8 tackles and an INT. By the end of Week 3, Kentucky held the third-ranked run defense.
Next Saturday’s holds likely Kentucky's biggest game of the season. The Florida Gators will travel to Lexington as the rivalry continues. The Gators have won the past 30 meetings, dating back to 1987.
Florida is coming into next Saturday's game with a home win over Tennessee as they connected on a hail-mary touchdown as time expired. Their only loss came at the expense of Michigan, who ranks 7th in the country.
The Gators defense has been their strong suit this season, returning three interceptions for touchdowns.
For what it’s worth, ESPN's Power Index is giving Kentucky a 34.7% chance to snap the losing streak against the Gators. That same service gave Kentucky about an 18% chance of winning in Columbia, and look how that turned out.
Here is a look at the postgame notes and milestones form Saturday’s win in Columbia, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Team Records and Series Notes
- Kentucky is 3-0, 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference. South Carolina is 2-1, 1-1 in the SEC.
- Kentucky is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2010.
- South Carolina leads the series 17-11-1 but the Wildcats have won four in a row. USC leads 8-5-1 in games played in Columbia.
- Kentucky will return to action Sat. Sept. 16 with the SEC home opener vs. Florida. Game time is 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on the SEC Network. It also will be carried live on the UK Sports Radio Network.
- The win moved Kentucky to a 10-4 record over the last 14 games, including the fourth road win in that stretch (also last season at Missouri and Louisville, this year at Southern Mississippi).
- Including last season, this is UK’s third-straight road win, first time that has happened since winning at Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia in 2009.
- This is the first time UK has defeated an SEC opponent in four-straight seasons since defeating Vanderbilt four in a row in 2004-07.
- UK is 18-1 under Coach Mark Stoops when leading after three quarters.
- UK limited South Carolina to 13 points. It has been nine years since the Wildcats held three straight opponents to 17 points or less, the first five games of the 2008 season.
- South Carolina had 54 rushing yards. UK has held all three opponents this season under 100 rushing yards. It has been nine years since the Wildcats held three straight opponents under 100 rushing yards, the first three games of the 2008 season.
- The Kentucky defense made two huge stops on fourth down in the second half.
- On 4th-and-1 from the UK 49, Derrick Baity and Courtney Love tackled USC for no gain. That set up a drive for a field goal.
- On 4th-and-1 from the UK 1, Baity and Jamar “Boogie” Watson tackled USC for no gain.
- Kentucky converted 9-of-16 on third-down conversions, including five in a row in the two touchdown drives in the first half.
- With the help of the third-down conversions, UK dominated time of possession, 36:49 to 23:11.
- UK’s game captains were OG Nick Haynes, QB Stephen Johnson, LB Courtney Love and S Mike Edwards.
- Stephen Johnson completed 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards.
- UK is now 10-4 over the last 14 games with Johnson as the starter (8-4) or QB for the majority of the game in a relief role (2-0).
- Benny Snell led the rushing attack with 32 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
- Benny Snell topped the 100-yard mark for the second-consecutive game and seventh of his career.
- Snell is the first Wildcat to have two rushing TDs in the first half of an SEC road game since Anthony White at LSU in 1998.
- Snell is the first Wildcat to have two rushing TDs in an SEC opener since Curtis Pulley vs. Florida in 2006.
- Snell is the first Wildcat to have two rushing TDs in an SEC road opener since Al Baker at Ole Miss in 1990.
- He has 1,363 career rushing yards, advancing four spots to 24th place on the career rushing list.
- Garrett Johnson caught four passes for 41 yards.
- Mike Edwards picked off a deflected pass in the first quarter, his second interception of the season and sixth of his career.
- Derrick Baity nabbed an interception on South Carolina’s final offensive series. He also was part of both tackles on the two fourth-down stops. He led the Wildcats with eight tackles.
- Austin MacGinnis made a 27-yard field goal in the third quarter and also made 44- and 21-yard field goals in the fourth quarter. He also hit both of his extra-point tries.