Kentucky Wildcats fans experienced life without star quarterback Will Levis for the first time on Saturday night, and it went as you may have expected.
The Wildcats hosted the South Carolina Gamecocks at Kroger Field and were handed their second consecutive loss of the season, 24-14. The defeat comes a week after Kentucky cost themselves a road victory at Ole Miss. They’ll look to nurse Levis back to health and prepare for another home test next Saturday vs. Mississippi State.
Here are five things to know following the loss.
Kentucky is Banged Up
The Wildcats played Saturday night’s game without Levis, starting right tackle Jeremy Flax and veteran middle linebacker Jacquez Jones. It showed. Kaiya Sheron drew the call to start at QB with Deondre Buford getting the start at RT and D’Eryk Jackson starting in place of Jones.
Their replacements didn’t have “bad” games, but Kentucky noticeably missed their starters. The Wildcats did get J.J. Weaver back into the fold, and he made his presence felt, but Kentucky will need to get healthier before they can expect to win next Saturday.
Don’t Blame Kaiya Sheron
With Levis missing Saturday night’s game due to a left foot injury, Sheron made his first collegiate start. The redshirt freshman had seen the field for the final drive in Kentucky’s win over Youngstown State, but didn’t attempt a pass. In his first full game, Sheron threw two touchdown passes but wasn’t able to make the plays needed for Kentucky’s offense to be explosive.
While Sheron made a few freshman mistakes, he also didn’t receive much help from play-calling, his wide receivers or his offensive line. Sheron may very well be the future for Kentucky, but the Wildcats need Levis back ASAP.
Defense Runs Out of Gas
Kentucky’s defense was put in a bind multiple times throughout the first half, but held South Carolina scoreless aside from a touchdown :13 into the game where a Kentucky fumble allowed the Gamecocks to start their drive on Kentucky’s two-yard line.
Thanks to a touchdown drive by Kentucky’s offense, the defense was able to go in to the locker room tied at halftime. Unfortunately, it was a different story over the course of the final two quarters. South Carolina made adjustments and was able to move the football more efficiently to outscore Kentucky 17-0 in the second half.
Other than their shutout of Youngstown State, Kentucky’s defense hasn’t played a “complete game” this season.
Kicking Team Struggles Continue
Kentucky’s kicking team picked right up where they left off last week with a punt blocked and field goal missed in the first quarter. The Wildcats’ SEC schedule is ramping up fast and that won’t allow much time for any more errors on special teams.
It’s hard to imagine that Kentucky’s coaching staff has much confidence in their kicking unit, which is tough to stomach as the weeks roll on. Matt Ruffolo and company will need to start converting on field goals or Kentucky may have to start going for it on fourth down.
Kentucky Needs a Pass Rush
Last weekend Kentucky allowed Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart to have all day in the pocket. For the most part, the Wildcats didn’t see much difference with Gamecocks QB Spencer Rattler. Though Rattler didn’t exactly play well, he had enough time to scramble for positive yards or eventually find someone open downfield.
Kentucky did force a strip sack and recover a fumble in the first half, but didn’t deliver much pressure throughout the rest of the night. As Kentucky faces better quarterbacks, they’ll need to find ways to develop a pass rush.
It’s Will Levis or Bust
Kentucky fans shouldn’t have expected much from their redshirt freshman, backup quarterback making his first collegiate start. However, they may have expected more than seven points on offense. While Kaiya Sheron didn’t turn the ball over, the offense didn’t exactly pose any threat down field. If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s now clear that Kentucky’s offense (and team success) will go as far as Levis takes them.
Kentucky will hope and pray the star quarterback will be able to go for next Saturday’s game vs. Mississippi State.