It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for the Kentucky football team.
After beating South Carolina five consecutive seasons, the Wildcats walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday evening with their tails tucked between their legs in an embarrassing 24-7 loss.
On the day, the Gamecocks managed 387 total yards compared to Kentucky’s 212, including just 90 through the air from Sawyer Smith on 11-32 passing and one interception.
On the ground, the Wildcats totaled 115 yards, led by 65 yards and a touchdown by Chris Rodriguez and 44 yards by Lynn Bowden.
While South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski only managed 140 yards on 15-27 passing, the Gamecocks managed 247 rushing yards, including two 100-plus yard performances from Tavien Feaster (107 yards, two TD) and Rico Dowdle (102 yards and one TD).
So how did the loss unfold?
On the game’s very first drive, Ryan Hilinski dinked-and-dunked his way down the field to put the Gamecocks in scoring position with little-to-no resistance. After picking up 48 yards through the air on 4-6 passing, Tavien Feaster punched it in for a two-yard touchdown run.
And then to follow it up on Kentucky’s first offensive drive, quarterback Sawyer Smith threw an opening-drive interception, his third straight turnover to start the game in as many games and his fifth pick of the season.
Like we saw last week against Mississippi State, the offense’s struggles to start the game proved to tell the story of the entire game for the unit.
After crossing into Kentucky territory for a second consecutive drive, true freshman cornerback Quandre Mosely sparked the defense with a near-pick at the line of scrimmage, eventually leading to a 43-yard punt for the Gamecocks. Instead of using this to flip the script and overcome the early mistake like we saw in Columbia two years ago, the offense failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
After going three-and-out on the next offensive series, Max Duffy’s deep punt bounced off a Gamecock returner’s back, allowing Kentucky to recover the ball at their own 39. But instead of flipping momentum back their direction, the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs in four plays.
The defense once again found success by forcing an immediate three-and-out against USC, though two brutal misses from Smith to Ahmad Wagner and Lynn Bowden led to yet another three-and-out on offense. To close out the first quarter, Kentucky had picked up just one first down – a 13-yard pass to Bowden on the second play of the game – 37 total yards, and zero points.
To open the second quarter, the Wildcat defense bent, but failed to break, allowing the Gamecocks a field goal score after a 10-play, 62-yard drive.
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky managed yet another three-and-out on three questionable throws by Smith. After rolling right and missing Josh Ali on a first-down throw, Smith missed a wide-open Ahmad Wagner for a first down and opted for a two-yard screen to Ali. A missed ball to Allen Dailey on third and long sparked a 0-5 start on third down conversions, pushing the two-game number to 1-17 at the time and 3-27 by game’s end. Despite Smith’s fairly obvious struggles, the Kentucky offense ran nine straight passing plays down 10-0.
In need of a change of scenery, Lynn Bowden jumped in the Kentucky backfield and managed an impressive 20-yard run out of the Wildcat, ultimately leading the team down to the UK 46. Despite having a wide open run lane in fake punt territory, Duffy instead decided to pin the Gamecocks at their own 10, hoping for a quick three-and-out to give the Wildcats another offensive opportunity before halftime.
After forcing a tough third down deep in their own territory, Hilinski found USC star receiver Bryan Edwards for an eight-yard gain and first down conversion before hitting Dowdle for a 23-yard gain taken all the way to the South Carolina 46. When it looked like the Wildcats would likely go into the half down 17-0, Boogie Watson came away with a clutch six-yard sack, followed by two quick incompletions to end the half.
The Wildcats went into the break down 10-0, but it certainly felt like they were down 30-0 with zero consistency or rhythm on offense and 225 yards allowed on defense. Kentucky managed just 78 total yards (12 passing yards), two first downs, 0-6 on third down conversions, and zero trips to the red zone.
To start the second half, things didn’t get any better. After a 37-yard return by Bowden, Smith hit Clevan Thomas in the slot for a two-yard gain, followed by an incomplete pass to Ali. On third and long, fumbled the ball on a strip-sack, giving the ball back to the Gamecocks.
On the very next play, Dowdle found running room on the left side of the field and took it to the house for an easy touchdown score, pushing South Carolina’s lead to 17-0.
Would the Wildcats respond with urgency on offense? Unfortunately not, as the team went three-and-out yet again following a one-yard reception by Bowden, a five-yard pickup by AJ Rose, and an incomplete pass to Justin Rigg on third and 6.
On defense, Kentucky forced another three-and-out of their own, allowing just six yards on two rushes, followed by an impressive pass breakup by sophomore linebacker Deandre Square. With a touchback on the punt, the Wildcats would take back over on their own 20.
Would the Wildcats respond with urgency on offense this time around? Nope. After a three-yard gain by Chris Rodriguez – his first carry since the season-opener – on first down, Bowden managed a six-yard reception on second only to lose those same six yards on a fumble in the backfield on third. Another failed third down conversion.
With the Kentucky offense sputtering, the defense continued to find its groove, forcing yet another three-and-out on back-to-back tackles for loss on second and third down. After a quiet start to the season, Boogie Watson managed his second sack of the game.
While a nine-yard gain on third down ended Kentucky’s first down and third down conversion streak, two penalties pushed the Wildcats back ten yards to spark a 3rd and 20 from their own 21. After throwing the ball away and settling for the punt, USC was called for a horsecollar tackle on the sack attempt, giving the offense a new set of downs. In an unprecedented turn of events, Kentucky converted on a second third down conversion following a 26-yard completion to, once again, Ahmad Wagner. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-7 star receiver, his impressive sideline grab would result in no points for the offense following another turnover on downs in South Carolina territory.
After another impressive display on defense that led to just 13 yards on five plays for South Carolina – Kentucky’s eighth forced punt of the day – the Wildcat offense followed it up with yet another three-and-out.
USC with a three-and-out, UK with another punt. Rewind, repeat.
On the evening, Kentucky racked up a whopping nine three-and-outs or turnovers on downs, along with two turnovers.
The clock struck midnight on the Kentucky defense midway through the fourth quarter, with the unit giving up seven consecutive positive yardage plays and a 19-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 24-0.
After picking up more bumps and bruises on the offense’s next drive, the injured Smith was officially replaced by Bowden in the backfield, leading to a five-play, 84-yard touchdown drive. In Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the day, the Wildcats saw gains of nine, 44, three, 26, and two on the touchdown run by Rodriguez. 24-7 Wildcats, which would end up being the game’s final score.
With the team’s third consecutive loss, Kentucky moves to 2-3 on the year and 0-3 in conference play.
The good news? The Wildcats will have a bye week to regroup and get healthy before taking on the likes of Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, UT-Martin, and Louisville to close out the year. Despite a 2-3 start, Kentucky could still managed to scrape together eight wins and an impressive bowl.
The bad news? Kentucky has regressed in each of the last three weeks, with the offense showing zero semblance of consistency or urgency. And frankly, the unit hasn’t given much reason for optimism. Sawyer Smith is fighting through pain – and struggling mightily in the process – while the run game has failed to impress with the game still in reach.
After breaking through the 100-yard barrier against Mississippi State last weekend, AJ Rose again struggled to find holes and break tackles, finishing with just 33 yards on ten carries. Max Duffy dominated at the punter position, but the fact that he was needed nine times is a major, major issue. The defense managed three crucial sacks, but the pass rush wasn’t nearly effective enough to make Hilinski feel even slightly uncomfortable in the pocket throughout the game. With weapons such as Kash Daniel, Deandre Square, Chris Oats, and Boogie Watson at linebacker, along with other defensive line standouts such as Josh Paschal, Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, and Calvin Taylor, the run defense – for the most part – was horrendous.
The season isn’t over, but in a game Kentucky looked to find answers, they left the field with more questions than ever.