After the first quarter in Columbia, I’m pretty sure most Kentucky fans had that old familiar feeling. Down 14-0 with Sandstorm ringing in our ears and the South Carolina offense moving the ball at will, this game had the feeling of a Steve Spurrier shutout. But this is not your old familiar Kentucky team. The Cats clawed back to striking distance and showed that the losing mentality of the Joker Phillips era is long gone. I sat down after the game and came up with a list of what worked against the Gamecocks and what didn’t, and even though they lost, ended up with more positive than negatives.
The One-QB System — With the two-QB system looking more inept than the government against Florida, Mark Stoops knew it was time to pick a quarterback. Stoops reportedly gave Whitlow the majority of the reps in practice last week, only to have Jalen turn in a terrible practice on Tuesday. Regardless, Stoops gave him the nod on Saturday night, and it worked. Whitlow was 17-of-24 for 178 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 17 times for 69 yards and a touchdown. He wasn’t perfect; he continues to be inaccurate on the majority of his short throws, but under him, an otherwise stagnant offense finally found a rhythm. Jalen’s nerves didn’t affect him nearly as much as they have at other times this season, and with him at the helm, the Cats scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After the game, Stoops admitted that he considered putting Maxwell in at one point last night, but decided against it: “I gotta admit, I was thinking about some things in the middle of the game and I said, ‘Nah, lets go with it.’” Thank God he did. UK’s offense is better off for it.
The young guns shine — If you’re looking for the future of Kentucky football, look no further than the freshmen wide receivers and JoJo Kemp. UK’s freshmen and JuCo wideouts were responsible for 124 receiving yards and one touchdown last night. Kemp also looked good, with 12 carries for 40 yards. Ryan Timmons is now the first UK freshman wide receiver with 200 receiving yards since Kennan Burton in 2003, and his first collegiate touchdown was a beauty–an over the shoulder grab in the endzone. Another advantage of sticking with one QB: it allowed Whitlow to form some gametime chemistry with his wide receivers.
Angry Stoops — We hadn’t really seen the “wrath of Stoops” until last night. Stoops looked unhappy for the majority of the game, in part because of his defense’s play, and he was downright livid with Eric Dixon after he missed a crucial tackle on third down. Stoops also had plenty of words for the refs after a bogus substitution infraction late in the fourth quarter. The officials claimed Kentucky had twelve men on the field, when that was obviously not the case. Stoops was still fired up about it in his postgame remarks, telling reporters that he “didn’t understand” the call and the team didn’t even sub anyone on that series. I’ll touch on this more in a second, but Stoops told his team last week that he “would not stand” for their poor performance in practice, and last night, I feel like fans got a little taste of “Angry Stoops.”
Heart — Like I said earlier, this game had a very familiar feeling after the first quarter. The old Kentucky would have rolled over and cried for mercy like they did two years ago in Columbia in a classic 54-3 Steve Spurrier beatdown. One of Stoops’ biggest challenges so far has been changing the losing mentality around the program. For one reason or another, before this season, the team accepted mediocrity, but to Stoops, losing is unacceptable. Last week, he said he felt his team was just “going through the motions” during practice and he lit into them for it, telling them that he wouldn’t stand for their lackluster effort. South Carolina came out hot last night, and instead of rolling over, the Cats clawed back like they have so many times this season. Afterwards, Stoops said he believes they’re changing the culture in the locker room, but he’s not satisfied with a moral victory:
“Our players showed a lot of character, showed a lot of toughness, that they’re doing things the right way,” Stoops told reporters. “Not flinch, take their best shot, and battle back and have an opportunity to make plays in the fourth quarter to win the game. Proud we were in position to do that and very frustrated that we did not do that.”
Senior Avery Williamson said that he’s seeing progress:
“I thought about and I was like, ‘Man we can’t allow that to happen again.’ We dug down deep and just kept on fighting to not allow that. I feel like it’s a different team, we didn’t give up, we kept on fighting. Two years ago we might have laid down but this time we didn’t. I feel like we have 10 times a better team than we did two years ago.”
It won’t come against Alabama, but with that attitude, you have to feel like the Cats will get an SEC victory at some point this season.
Jason Hatcher — Bud Dupree missed most of the game because of a strained pectoral muscle, but Hatcher stepped up to perform admirably in his place. The freshmen defensive end had one of his best games so far, finishing with three tackles and his first career sack.
The uniforms — The white tops, blue pants and blue helmets looked awesome. Definitely Kentucky’s best look so far this season. /FashionRave
Tackling — Eric Dixon’s missed tackle on a crucial third down was the most unfortunate example of this, but the Cats still had way too many missed tackles last night. For the majority of the game, South Carolina moved the ball at will, mainly because of poor execution by the defense. Stoops, who takes bad defense personally, was especially discouraged by the team’s inability to get a stop on South Carolina’s last drive of the game:
“I felt like if we could’ve gotten another stop there defensively, that we could have given ourselves a chance to score.”
That being said, the defense did make some good adjustments at halftime, and were without Bud Dupree and Ashely Lowery at times because of injury. Dupree strained a pectoral muscle during weight training on Thursday and had to come out because the pain was still too bad. Lowery had cramps but returned to the game.
Special Teams — We’ve long loved making jokes about UK’s special teams, which, for a long time, was one of the few bright spots on the squad. Last night, they didn’t look so special, botching an onside kick and failing to pin an excellent Landon Foster punt down at the 1-yard line. The fake field goal against Florida was so spectacular I’m willing to overlook it.
I don’t believe in moral victories, but after last night, it’s hard not to believe in this team and Mark Stoops.