After the Cats scored on the game-opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, the defense held strong as turnovers once again kept this game close. Kentucky is now on a six-game winning streak dating back to last season as they look ahead to their matchup with the Florida Gators in Lexington next Saturday.
Here’s a look at those whose stock rose and fell in this contest.
DeAndre Square: Square has clearly solidified himself as the leader of this defense. He led the team in tackles against the Gamecocks with eight and continues to be a positive voice on the field. It’s not a coincidence that, as discussed below, Bully McCall finds himself on this list after having probably the best game of his career when Square was in his ear the whole game. Square isn’t a world-beater, but he is a very talented, very experienced presence in the middle of the defense. That’s invaluable.
Wan’Dale Robinson: Robinson didn’t have his fourth 100-yard receiving game in a row, but he did account for 64% of the team's yards through the air. The 5-11 do-it-all wideout had seven receptions for 65 yards to go along with one rush for five yards. Robinson did this despite being hampered by a hamstring that reportedly almost kept him out of the game. That’s impressive. The Cats will need him back at full strength before Saturday’s game against eh Gators.
Marquan “Bully” McCall: As mentioned above, Bully had one of his best games as a Wildcat. The box score doesn’t do him justice, as he only accounted for one tackle, but he made his presence known throughout the game. McCall consistently moved the line of scrimmage and bullied the South Carolina offensive line all night long. There were several times McCall was held despite not getting the call. With UK’s lack of a pass rush, McCall doing this more often is imperative.
J.J. Weaver: Weaver once again had a sack as he now has four in four games to start the year. Many were worried about his ability following ACL surgery, but Weaver has put that to rest. Kentucky severely lacks a pass rush, but the sophomore has proved he’s one that BBN can count on. It’s only a matter of time before Weaver has played his way into a positive draft position.
Matt Ruffolo: Ruffolo usually gets remembered for that missed extra point that costs the Cats the game against the Ole Miss Rebels last season. Since then, he’s been nothing short of reliable. After going 3/3 on field goals last night, the Italian meatball is now 20/24 in his career. He doesn’t have the biggest leg, but Kentucky can feel confident putting him out there inside the 50. Having a kicker you have confidence in is important and have no doubt that he’ll win UK a game or two this season.
The defense: Last night, we saw the Kentucky defense we’ve all come to know and love. It hasn’t been the best of starts to the season on that side of the ball, but they showed up big time in Columbia. The Cats held the Gamecock offense to just 12 first downs and 216 total yards. They also held strong on the important downs as South Carolina was 3-12 on third down and 0-3 on fourth down. With UK turning the ball over three times, the defense somehow held the Cocks to just 51 plays. That’s absolutely insane, but it’s a testament to that squad. Hopefully, this is the defense we see going forward.
Kavosiey Smoke: Smoke has had his fair share of durability concerns, but the talent has always been there and always been apparent. He had a limited workload last night, but he looked great carrying the ball nine times for 50 yards, including a 15 yard touchdown run. That 15 yard scamper proved to be the lone touchdown of the game for the Cats, so it was incredibly pivotal to the victory. As long as he can hold onto the ball and stay healthy, Smoke will continue to get more touches as the season progresses.
Chris Rodriguez: Rodriguez once again proved to be the workhorse. He totaled 144 yards on 26 carries while sealing the Cats’ victory in the fourth quarter as he kept the clock churning.
Rodriguez did have two fumbles, which could have landed him on the faller list, but, luckily, UK was able to jump on them both. Ball security continues to be an issue, and it needs to get cleaned up, but this team’s identity is still ground-and-pound despite their ability to open it up in the passing game more so than years past. And Rodriguez is the perfect man for the job.
The talented back now has three 100-yard games in his first four games this season. Chattanooga was obviously an outlier, as it was for the rest of the team. The Cats need to continue to feed Rodriguez and let him run wild.
Carrington Valentine: Valentine has been picked on so far this season, but he held his own last night. He was second on the team in tackles with four, including a sack and a tackle-for-loss. He didn’t give up any big plays, and it looks like other teams targeting him has helped him actually improve. We’ll see if it continues, but you better believe that he played a role in the defense’s improvement this week.
Kentucky -5 bettors: The Cats entered the game as 5-point favorites and just barely held on for the cover. I’m sure a lot of you were sweating it out. Always gamble responsibly, but remember, good teams win…great teams cover.
Josh Ali: Ali returned for his super senior season to improve his draft stock, and it looked like he was headed in the right direction after reeling in five catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. However, he’s slowed down of late and last night was one to forget. Ali had four receptions for 14 yards and two carries for two yards. The biggest issue was he fumbled on both rushing attempts, which were end-around. One was on a first down run, the other with Kentucky in the red zone, and both were lost. Kentucky doesn’t have much depth in the receiving corps, so Ali will continue to see the field, but UK needs him to pick it up to reach their ceiling.
The turnover margin: The stats I’m about to present you are both impressive and concerning. Kentucky has a -9 turnover margin through four games, which is good for last in all of college football.
Since 2000, 7 SEC teams have had a combined turnover margin of -9 or worse through their first 4 games of a season. Of those 7 teams, only 1 started their season 4-0 (2021 @UKFootball).— Corey Price (@coreyp08) September 26, 2021
Since 2000, 22 SEC teams have had at least 11 combined turnovers through their first 4 games of a season. Of those 22 teams, only 2 started their season 4-0 (2011 South Carolina, 2021 @UKFootball)— Corey Price (@coreyp08) September 26, 2021
Both of those stats above are impressive, but they’re concerning as well. Kentucky has to clean it up, or they risk losing three straight and maybe more. This team’s floor looks like eight wins, but the ceiling could be as high as 10 or 11 if they get the offense rolling, keep that defense we saw last night, and clean up the sloppiness. The good news: that 2011 South Carolina team that had 11 turnovers through four games, just like Kentucky, went 11-2. I think we’d all be happy with that outcome.