When the Gamecocks opened the game with a 68-yard touchdown to Deebo Samuel, fans felt a massive lump in their throat. Samuel was the one guy the media and analysts highlighted, circled, and underlined all week long as a guy you must stop for a shot. The Cats missed a coverage and allowed him to score on the first play from scrimmage.
When Stephen Johnson followed it up with an interception on their first drive, fans had another “that’s so Kentucky football” moment. The idea that Will Muschamp would have his team prepared and disciplined, ready to convert on any and all UK mistakes was preached as gospel in game preparation. That’s how they defeated their first two Power 5 opponents, and they’d be ready to do it to UK with zero remorse.
The typical Kentucky football would have never been able to win this football game.
But this isn’t typical Kentucky football.
Mark Stoops has taken this team to levels we haven’t seen in who knows how long. The Gamecocks hadn’t defeated the Wildcats in three consecutive matchups, and they were itching and scratching at a chance to end the streak.
The school sold over 86,000 tickets and 15,000 student tickets to this long-awaited matchup. They set up a blackout, publicized this game all over social media to no end. This Kentucky was their team’s Super Bowl, which was a statement in itself.
The media bought in. Vegas bought in. The USC players and coaches bought in.
And they crumbled.
Statistics don’t necessarily tell the whole story, but the Kentucky Wildcats dominated the South Carolina Gamecocks in all facets of the game.
The Cats made the stops when it mattered most, converted on crucial downs and in tough situations, and put points on the board to keep USC out of reach.
A 54-yard rush by Stephen Johnson on third down late in the game was the kiss of death to any hopes of a comeback victory.
And it was a sweet one.
The rush wasn’t just a game-clincher, it was a solidification of Johnson’s status as an elite quarterback at Kentucky.
The JUCO transfer could have taken a sack under pressure, or like many quarterbacks do, force a throw in hopes of moving the chains. Instead, Johnson remained calm, found a sliver of open field, and converted.
At 16-25 passing, 169 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception, his stat-line was the epitome of average. But he got the job done in crunch time, and his team followed suit.
Let’s break down the numbers:
UK absolutely dominated time of possession, 36:49 to 23:11. Utilizing Benny Snell, who has scored seven touchdowns in his last five SEC matchups, to chip away at the clock and inch the Wildcats down the field proved to be crucial against South Carolina yet again. He scored two touchdowns and rushed for 102 total yards on 37 carries, his second game in a row with 100-plus yards.
The most important stat line of the day, however, is Kentucky’s effectiveness on third down. The team converted 9-16 attempts, including a streak of five in a row in two scoring drives in the first half. The situation was never forced, as the team remained calm and collected.
The Johnson-to-Conrad connection worked to perfection once again, as the junior tight end managed to catch two balls for 36 yards. Conrad dropped a would-be touchdown, but the team still managed to get points on the trip.
Garrett Johnson had a “juice” game as Johnson’s go-to target on third down, making four receptions for 41 yards all over the field.
Nine different Wildcats caught balls on the afternoon.
Despite a few snapping miscues, the offensive line remained relatively strong throughout the game. We saw a few guys banged up as time progressed, but nothing serious or deemed long-term. We’re starting to see holes develop easier and missteps kept to a minimum.
On the other side of the ball, the defense played with the mental edge you see from only the top-tier programs in America.
Carolina was held to just 54 rushing yards, the third time in a row a Kentucky opponent has failed to break the 100-yard mark, the first time this has occurred in nine seasons. And we’re not talking about three scrub backfields, either.
Southern Miss’ Ito Smith is an NFL-caliber back, who has since rushed for 333 yards, good for 16th in the nation.
EKU’s LJ Scott was a high-level recruit and former Louisville Cardinal with elite talent.
USC’s Rico Dowell rushed for nearly 800 yards and six TDs as a freshman last year.
In their two road games, the Wildcats have allowed an average of just 15 points per game. No team has scored more than 17 points in a game against Kentucky in three tries this season, a feat that hasn’t occurred since 2008. We saw fourth-and-goal stops that would have been cupcakes for teams in the past.
Eli Brown stepped up in a major way in Jordan Jones’ absence. He was a key piece on many major defensive stops and a big-time tackle for loss. He finished with six total tackles, tied for third on the team with Darius West and Courtney Love.
Mike Edwards made a massive interception to calm things down at the start of the game, and Derrick Baity finished the job with a pick to seal the victory at the end.
Kentucky has not defeated an SEC opponent four times in a row since they did so with Vanderbilt from 2004-07, yet here we are.
The Wildcats have knocked off South Carolina in four consecutive tries. This year’s senior class has never felt what it was like to lose to the Gamecocks, a team that has absolutely dominated the Cats prior to the Mark Stoops Era.
Again, this isn’t typical Kentucky football.
This is resiliency at its finest.