After two tough losses to open up SEC play, Kentucky hit the road to play in a venue they’ve had a lot of recent success in. Williams-Brice Stadium had been home to two of the biggest wins of Mark Stoops’ coaching career, but tonight a third was not in the cards.
In front of over 80,000 in attendance, Kentucky fell short and lost to South Carolina for the first time since 2013. In what was a defensive slugfest most of the night, the Gamecocks were able to establish the run while the Wildcats had a ton of trouble handling South Carolina’s defensive front. It led to a lot of passes from Sawyer Smith and the banged up quarterback was not up to the challenge.
It was a sobering defeat and the train is beginning to fall off the tracks for Kentucky a year after recording 10 wins. The Wildcats need to find some answers in a hurry and it appears that the first bye of the season could not have come at a better time.
Kentucky collected 212 yards (115 rushing, 97 passing) on 62 plays and that’s pretty bad. The 3.4 yards per play average is the lowest since Eddie Gran’s first season calling plays in Lexington and it felt like UK’s offense never really gave itself much of a shot. For the third consecutive game and third straight time in Columbia, the Wildcats coughed it up on their first possession. This time it was Sawyer Smith trying to make a play on third down.
It was another long day for Smith on the road and it is pretty evident that the grad transfer is playing hurt. The junior completed just 34.4 percent of his 32 passes, averaged 2.8 yards per attempt on his way to a paltry 90 yards passing. Smith was sacked four times and lost a fumble on the first possession of the third quarter that would lead to a South Carolina touchdown. Ball security is a major issue for the quarterback and now he seems to have no accuracy playing with a hurt wrist and shoulder. Perhaps no one needs the bye more than him.
In the pass catching department, Smith is not getting the help he needs. Lynn Bowden, Jr. had a season-low three receptions and was facing double coverage most of the night. Ahmad Wagner did not receive enough targets and Keaton Upshaw was never heard of. Josh Ali recorded three grabs but had a drop. With Smith in the game, there were numerous miscommunication issues between him and receivers. This has been an issue in every game the new quarterback has played. Many around the program thought the passing game would be an advantage this season, but it has hurt Kentucky way more than it has helped in the last two games.
Facing a very underrated South Carolina defensive front, the Wildcats struggled to get anything going on the ground. UK’s top two backs put up just 40 yards on 12 carries and Kavosiey Smoke has really struggled since playing very well in his first three games. However, we saw Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. for the first time since the win over Toledo and he showed some burst.
The offensive line, meanwhile, played their worst game of the season. In the rowdy environment, they struggled with Carolina’s pass rush in obvious passing downs and were not able to get any movement on the interior. After the solid performance against Florida, UK needed this group to play well to win on the road and they did not in either of the past two weeks.
Now to what we saw at the end. On the last offensive possession of the game, Kentucky inserted Lynn Bowden, Jr. behind center and let him play real quarterback instead of the usual wildcat package. The results were impressive against mostly twos in the game for South Carolina.
The Wildcats went 84 yards in just five plays with the two longest plays of the night occurring. Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. gashed the defense with a 44-yard run on a zone read keep and then Bowden scrambled for 26 more yards two plays later. It was enough to stop and make you wonder if this is something UK should consider switching to after suffering two separate injury issues at the quarterback position.
Kentucky allowed 387 yards (247 rushing, 140 passing) on 73 plays. The Gamecocks put up 5.3 yards per play and that was good for UK’s second best performance of the season. The Wildcats were able to create some three-and-outs and limited Carolina to just 3-of-13 on third down after their first possession. The group didn’t force a takeaway for the first time this season, but they created a timely red zone stop and did their best to keep UK in the game. However, the run defense is starting to become an issue.
South Carolina’s running backs recorded 40 carries, 251 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per rush and scored all three South Carolina touchdowns. For the second SEC game in a row, UK allowed two players to rush for over 100 yards and that is a concerning statistic. Rico Dowdle started the game off hot (15 carries, 102 yards) while Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster finished Kentucky off in the fourth quarter (15 carries, 107 yards). Kentucky did some good things, but this run defense must be fixed in a hurry.
However, the pass defense took a big step forward. The Wildcats held Ryan Hilinski to just 5.2 yards per attempt on top of a 55.6 percent completion percentage. These were numbers that were very similar to what Hilinski put up against both Alabama and Mizzou. The secondary missed some tackles, but overall UK was good in coverage and the pass rush had some positives. It was good to see Boogie Watson come alive with two sacks and an additional knockdown that could’ve easily been ruled intentional grounding.
From an individual standpoint, it was a highly productive game from Chris Oats recording eight tackles. Jordan Griffin missed his second consecutive game, but Quandre Mosely flashed in his absence. Calvin Taylor, Jr. absolutely balled out and is well on his way to becoming an NFL Draft pick.
While still dealing with some flaws, Brad White’s unit has played well enough the past two weeks to come back home with a victory.
In his first game as a starter, walk-on Matt Ruffolo was not needed in the field goal department but he did record his first PAT. Grant McKinniss booted another kickoff into the endzone, but was unfortunately only needed once. The story of the night was once again Max Duffy.
The junior punter is well on his way to All-SEC and potential All-American honors. The Australian was needed nine times tonight and he averaged 51.1 yards per punt and pinned South Carolina inside the 20 on four of those attempts. He’s an absolute weapon who consistently puts UK’s defense in opportunistic situations.
Going into the season, we all knew UK was likely going to be an underdog in its first three SEC contests. However, most assumed the Wildcats would be a small dog in each and that they should be able to pull at least one upset. Now that none of that has happened, it drastically alters the outlook of the season.
With some major offensive issues, it seems like UK is going to have four toss up games (Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Louisville), one for sure loss (Georgia), one likely loss (Mizzou), and one definite win (UT Martin) to end the season. While still promising, it is not what we all thought would be in front of the program entering October just two weeks ago. Beginning in the fourth quarter against Florida, Kentucky got knocked to the canvas and it does not appear that they have gotten back onto their feet yet.
The Wildcats have plenty to figure out this coming bye week. With major quarterback issues thanks mostly to injuries, the Wildcats must figure out what their offensive identity is going to be in the last seven games of the season. Back in 2016, UK had to totally scrap a pass heavy offense and it’s looking like that will have to happen again. The Wildcats must get more efficient with their ground attack and figure out if they want to play a banged up backup or convert their star slot receiver. Eddie Gran will be earning that $875,000 salary in the next two months.
On defense, Kentucky must continue to grow with a young unit. This group has its flaws and will continue to give up chunks of yards this season. Brad White must figure out ways to excel in situational football (third down, red zone) in addition to creating takeaways. If they are able to do that, the defense should be able to give UK a really good chance to get to seven wins.
There’s a lot to be determined in the next couple weeks and most of it starts with the quarterback spot. Thanks to plenty of misses recruiting quarterbacks and some untimely transfers, UK has found itself in a precarious situation. Their QB1 is out for the season, QB2 can’t protect the football and has two injuries that are an obvious hindrance to his passing ability. It’s safe to say that the staff feels they cannot win with Walker Wood while true freshman Amani Gilmore is likely a year away from being a year away.
Now it comes down to playing the injured guy or just deciding to get weird. Lynn Bowden, Jr. has a bit of an it factor behind center, but with him there comes some obvious shortcomings. UK won’t be able to stretch the field vertically, likely can’t get the ball to Ahmad Wagner on fades, and will become the most ground heavy offense in the SEC. It’s obvious to see why there would be many detractors with playing that way. It’s also obvious to see why it would just be really hard to keep feeding Sawyer Smith to the wolves when he can just not make the throws.
Mark Stoops will make $4.75 million this year to solve these types of issues. Kentucky is at a crossroads and whatever he decides will either get UK back to 7-5 and a respectable bowl or could create disaster and a potential 4-8 campaign after a historic year. Things are going to get interesting in the next two months.