For the Kentucky Wildcats Football program, this season has been littered with missed opportunities and squandered optimism. Entering tonight’s game on the road at South Carolina, UK owned a disappointing overall record of 6-4 with two important regular-season games remaining.
The Gamecocks (4-6) weren’t having a stellar season themselves in 2023 but were coming off two consecutive wins. Most recently, USC destroyed the Vanderbilt Commodores 47-6, and the week prior, they survived Jacksonville State with a 10-point victory.
So, albeit they were not the most impressive wins, but definitely enough to provide some extra juice to a home team playing under the lights. For a 4-6 squad, the Gamecock crowd held up to their reputation of creating one of the best night football experiences in the nation, and it produced immediate positive results.
It felt as if the game was over moments after it began, but somehow, Coach Stoops found a way for his team to weather the storm and head into the halftime break down just three points.
The third quarter wasn’t easy on the eyes but allowed for the Cats to claw back to a 14-10 lead after Ray Davis put a USC defensive back in a spin cycle on his way to an impressive 31-yard TD score.
Sadly, the fourth quarter was a house of horrors, highlighted by Spencer Rattler throwing the game-winning touchdown with 7:44 left. Kentucky’s offense could do nothing in response before falling 17-14.
Brutal. No two ways about it.
Here are four things to know from loss No. 5.
Kentucky doesn't come ready to play
The pregame blaring of Sandstorm inside Williams-Brice Stadium did its job because the Cats couldn’t have looked worse to start. Sloppy play and poor execution were once again the horrific theme.
Kentucky found themselves down 10-0 quickly before a laboring drive ended with a Barion Brown touchdown early in the second quarter. Statistics aside, it’s just painfully obvious that, for whatever reason, UK isn’t coming out and executing a game plan.
At this point, you’re anticipating consistent mental blunders, and through 11 games, that should no longer be the case. There have been flashes of brilliance but never sustained execution from quarter to quarter.
On the flip side, you can give credit to Mark Stoops and his staff for calming down their team after a momentum-sucking onslaught to start a game in one of the toughest places to play in the conference.
But, it’s hard not to imagine what could be if this team were to put together four solid quarters of play.
Devin Leary is being punished. Offense Sputtering
After taking a beating last week against Alabama, things didn’t ease up for the NC State transfer.
Midway through the second quarter, Leary was scrambling and began to slide when he was obliterated by a Gamecock defender. It was scary watching his head bounce off the turf, but miraculously, Leary only missed a few plays before returning to the game and quickly tossing an interception.
For all the weapons at Liam Coen’s disposal, there just isn’t much of an excuse for UK’s lack of offensive continuity. Other than Ray Davis, who continues to cook, you’d like to see the Cats find some dependable stability.
But, let’s not take away from that 31-yard Ray Davis touchdown in which he humbled a would-be tackler with a vicious spin move. UK’s offense would be lost without the grad transfer in the backfield.
Despite the big hit on Leary, several key drops, fumbles, and the typical lackluster execution, the Cats were still able to give themselves a chance in the end, but Leary’s interception with two minutes left sunk those slim hopes.
Deone Walker anchoring UK defense
Hard-nosed defense has been something that Kentucky has been able to hang its hat on for the past several seasons, but things haven’t come as easily in 2023. At halftime of the game, South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer was asked about his team’s performance, and all he wanted to discuss was his team’s inability to block #0.
Without Walker, this game would have been over early. His presence managed to help Kentucky’s lackluster defense limit the Gamecocks to just 10 points through three quarters.
The monster in the middle is earning a reputation as being a chore to keep from disrupting opposing offenses.
Whether it was a win, loss, or tie, the biggest story coming out of Columbia was always going to be UK’s season finale against Louisville next week.
The Cardinals will be riding the wave of an unbelievable 10-1 season, led by first-year head coach Jeff Brohm.
After completely dominating the in-state rivalry as of late, it seemed as if the Cats were poised to keep up their winning ways against Louisville in the pre-season.
But, that’s no longer the case, as Mark Stoops and his Wildcats will travel the short distance up I64 West as underdogs. I’m anticipating the environment to be about as good as it gets for college football when that game kicks off.
Cards fans will undoubtedly be ready to let off some steam, assuming the spread holds up, while the Kentucky fans in attendance won’t be shy about boasting if their Cats defy the odds and keep their winning streak alive.
Many suggest that Louisville’s soft schedule will leave them vulnerable against an out-of-conference opponent.
The bottom line is the best version of Kentucky football better show up on Saturday at Louisville, or an already less than inspiring season will culminate with a gut-punch from your rival.