South Carolina was categorically and prematurely anointed as the up-and-coming, trendy pick to potentially win the East. Numbers and film that I studied didn’t support this supposition. With its blacked out stadium and lack of hand-shaking captains, Carolina expected to make a statement to the league and all of college football on Saturday night. It did so by confirming that Kentucky was and remains to be the better football team as the Cats methodically extended its winning streak to four in the series.
USC was projected ahead of the Cats this summer at SEC Media Days. I disagreed by the way. UK was given a lowly 18% chance of winning the game according to the FPI. FPI..goodness. The vast majority of national and all of the SEC Network talking heads unequivocally predicted that Kentucky would lose the game. Then, football happened in the version of a workmanlike 23-13 Wildcat victory.
Let’s be honest. This team isn’t flashy and that’s ok. Each team and season brings on different personalities. Scoreboard blowouts and offensive records may not be in the cards in 2017. However; on Saturday its toughness, audacity, composure, and assurance re-surfaced in a hostile, road environment.
Kentucky cannot afford to look further ahead than Monday’s practice. Florida and that embarrassing streak is coming to town next Saturday. After this weekend’s outcomes, the road schedule is daunting. But at the end of the night in Columbia; Kentucky was the team that made an early-season statement. I evaluate the season and this team on a week-by-week basis. Learned that lesson last year. But, this is a rewarding article to write as even I sensed Carolina’s blatant disrespect for Kentucky in Hoover, during the offseason, last week, and especially on game day. And then once again, football happened.
The game couldn’t have started much worse for Eddie Gran. With a +4 turnover margin for the season, Kentucky proceeded to throw an interception and fumble in the first quarter after Deebo Samuel blazed the Cats for a 68-yard touchdown catch on the game’s first offensive play. Gran proceeded to call an effectual game by utilizing his top two weapons: the unflappable quarterback Stephen Johnson and tough-guy running back Benny Snell. Kentucky’s first scoring drive defined the evening as it lived in the S.L.O.P (Sustained Long Offensive Possessions) by marching 75-yards from 13-plays to take a 7-6 lead. No matter how badly that several wanted the outcome to be different; UK never surrendered the scoreboard advantage.
The offense was not flashy; and that’s ok. Clock and game management is unique on the road especially when facing a quarterback like Jake Bentley who was heating up in the 4th quarter. With a defense that was playing lights-out and an invaluable kicker, 23-points proved to be enough. Kentucky is 10-4 over its last 14 games.
The offensive line sustained minor injuries but kept plugging in capable replacements. John Schlarman’s crew played their best game of the season. QB Stephen Johnson did Stephen Johnson things; again. The senior completed 64% of his passes. The veteran also saw a hole in the middle of the Carolina defense and rumbled down the sideline for a critical 54-yard gain that led to a MacGinnis field goal. Being labeled as a game manager has a bad reputation. In fact, I find it to be quite complimentary. Benny Snell surpassed the 100-yard mark for the second consecutive game.
|3rd Down||9/16, 56.3%|
|Time of Possession||36:59|
|Passing||Stephen Johnson||16/25, 169-yards, 64%,1 INT|
|Rushing||Benny Snell||32 carries, 102-yards, 2 TD’s|
|Receiving||Garrett Johnson||4 receptions, 41-yards|
First, I must say that I’d like to send prayers and best wishes to South Carolina WR/KR Deebo Samuel. The dynamic athlete suffered an injured leg in the contest. He’s a great football player. As a fan of the game, I want to see him back on the field.
QB Jake Bentley and Sameul connected on a 68-yard touchdown on Carolina’s first offensive play. Samuel accumulated for 34% of USC’s total offense which included 5 catches, 122-yards, and a score prior to exiting the game. If that play is taken out of the stat line, USC would have finished the game with 290 total yards. UK held its opponent to less than 100-rush yards for the third consecutive game (54-yards). Matt House’s defense reminded me of the Jerry Claiborne/Terry Strock Wide-Tackle-6 days of bending but not breaking. It held the Gamecocks to 3/12 on 3rd down and 1/3 on fourth.
Tackling, depth, speed, and physicality were strengths. A quick glance at the stat-line reveals that UK’s top-3 tacklers were defensive backs: Derrick Baity-8, Mike Edwards-7, Darius West-6. With Jake Bentley’s emphasis on the short pass, ample opportunities were provided. Clinkscale’s secondary responded.
Eli Brown valiantly filled in for All SEC LB Jordan Jones. Brown finished the night with 6 tackles including 1 tackle for loss. Derrick LeBlanc’s defensive line again showed vast upgrading as it maintained the line-of-scrimmage by limiting the Gamecocks to just 54 rush yards. Bentley’s short-pass preferences prevented a sustained pass rush.
|3rd Down||3/12, 25%|
|Tackles for Loss||Josh Paschal/Denzil Ware||.5|
|QB Sacks||Josh Allen||1|
|Interceptions||Mike Edwards/Derrick Baity||1|
|QB Hurries||Josh Allen||1|
Arguably the most undervalued Wildcat is kicker Austin MacGinnis. The senior was perfect on the night by connecting on all three of his field goal chances and two PAT’s. His kickoffs were perfectly placed to not give the ever-dangerous Deebo Samuel a chance for return. Coverage teams also excelled.
Back to the unappreciated Kentucky kicker. South Carolina’s combination missed three field goals and a PAT. MacGinnis’ influence and importance to the Wildcat football program was again accentuated.
|Kicking||Austin MacGinnis||3/3 FG’s|
|Punting||Matt Panton||4 punts, 44.5 yards per|
What does all this mean?
Kentucky is 3-0 and once again proved it can face adversity on the road and still win the football game. Matter of fact, it’s done so in four out of its last five chances. But, the season and a horde of very good football teams await. Week by week.
The Cats won.