After an ugly 0-2 start to the season, a good chunk of the BBN felt the need to jump off the Stoops train, calling for his termination and protesting the remainder of the season. There was little to be optimistic about.
The New Mexico State win was pretty on the offensive side of the ball, but an atrocious outing on defense, on top of the first two games, made many (most) call UK’s defense one of the worst in the entire nation. On College GameDay yesterday morning, Lee Corso emphasized the Wildcats may have the “worst defense in the history of football.” Ouch.
South Carolina was a must win, just to give optimism for the remainder of the season more than anything. They weren’t the strongest of SEC foes, but they were respectable, and carried a whole lot more weight than victories against teams like NMSU. UK went in with a two-game win streak against the Gamecocks, and a victory would push them back to .500.
It didn’t matter how it happened, it didn’t matter how ugly it was or how slow the game was, UK just had to come out on top in the end. And that’s exactly what they did.
Media had positive things to write about rather than negative. UK wasn’t the laughingstock of college football for the first time in five games. The victory itself was nice.
But after the game, it was different. There was a resurgence of the fan base, more than any other typical victory. The team, coaches, and fans were all desperate for this one, and it felt like an abundance of pressure, especially for Stoops, was (slightly) lifted.
This game gave fans a spark of hope. The defense that has been heavily criticized in the first quarter of the season managed to find a few niches to hang on to going forward. The offense converted on South Carolina’s mistakes, chipped time away off the clock, and produced long drives to give the defense much needed rest. There were key aspects on both sides of the ball for fans to look forward to, maybe not against Alabama, but against the other mortal teams on the docket for the the remainder of the year.
UK found their go-to guys on offense
As far as individual efforts go, Boom Williams and Benny Snell take the co-offensive MVPs on the day. UK has finally found a reliable one-two punch on the ground. We all knew Boom’s ability. The kid is elusive, has unbelievable vision to cut through blockers and find even the smallest of gaps to bounce through, and hits a third and fourth gear that not many can catch. He’s a superstar, and will likely go down in history as one of the best backs UK has ever had.
Beyond Boom, Kentucky has struggled to find a reliable back. Jojo Kemp has had his moments, especially in his time in the WildKemp as the Gamecock killer. Mikel Horton has shown flashes, Siheim King as well, but UK needed something more. That something ended up being true freshman Benny Snell.
Snell dominated last week against New Mexico State, rushing for four touchdowns and 136 yards on the ground. He quickly became a fan favorite, but most limited their expectations for the future due to the quality of opponent being so low. When Benny Snell got the call in the second half against South Carolina, he (literally) put the team on his back and carried them to the finish line. He’s a bulldozer, has an incredible first step, and his legs just never stop churning for the extra yard. He’s the power back Kentucky hasn’t had in who knows how many years, and man is it great to finally find one. After just two games on the field, he leads the SEC in touchdown runs with five, and has accumulated over 200 yards on the ground. Oh yeah, and we’ll still have him for three more years.
With Drew Barker out for an extended period of time, Stephen Johnson could use all the help he can get from other weapons to keep the offense’s production up. Luckily for him, UK found them.
Defense got off the field on third down
We’ll start with this: talent has never been the “problem” with the defense. I said it at the beginning of the season, and I stand by my word four games later, this is the most talent that has ever been on a Kentucky roster at any given time. That’s what has made this season such a disappointment.
That being said, that talent was finally put to light tonight, and they played up to their potential. They played with swagger and heart, and it immediately transformed the look of the defense.
Denzil Ware and Jordan Jones absolutely dominated on the field. Each of them flew around and made some huge hits on crucial downs. Towards the end of the game, when UK would give up the big play in most years, these two helped get the defense off the field with some terrific pass rushes and tackles in the backfield. The staff wanted heart out of the defense, they got it out of Ware and Jones.
USC went after Derrick Baity a good bit, and the young corner delivered. He made a few mistakes, but more than made up for it with lockdown coverage and a few pass breakups throughout the game. Solid outing from the entire secondary.
The DL also made a great push on the QB, something we have rarely seen thus far in the season. Josh Allen played out of his mind, and lived up to the hype as Jason Hatcher’s replacement this offseason.
As a team, UK limited the Gamecocks to just 3-13 on third down, a statistic that just doesn’t even seem possible given the past few weeks. USC accumulated just 177 yards passing, a season low, and just 16 first downs on offense. The Wildcats also sacked the quarterback four times, a season high.
Swaggy defense=good defense.
Special teams did their part
Let’s just take a minute to salute the entire special teams unit yesterday. We saw some bombs by Grant McKinnis to pin USC back near their own end zone, including one 53-yard boot. Austin MacGinniss sent some kickoffs back for touchbacks, and those that weren’t, the kickoff team laid the wood on some big hits to force the Gamecocks into long drives. UK got saved with a flag when USC returned a punt for a TD, but other than that slip up, the entire unit was solid. For a team that was so atrocious in this area in recent history (thanks backwards hat guy), they’ve been fairly consistent this season.
Team morale started high, finished higher
I won’t go into anything in particular, but I was really surprised with how well the team came out and fought last night, considering the garbage being thrown around throughout the morning and into the pregame coverage. In most cases, ugly “things” being discussed spark divide in locker rooms, player tension, etc., and I truthfully thought it would set the team back, at least slightly.
UK instead went in there, dismissed what was being said behind closed doors and stood behind their coach, and managed to get the job done. After the game, many of the players, Matt Elam in particular, went to social media to defend their coach and teammates.
I Love My Coach And We Will Go To War For Him And That's Not A Rumor !!
— Matt Elamâ„¢6âƒ£9âƒ£ (@FballIsLife69) September 25, 2016
It’s hard not to stand behind a coach that will rip a new one in a referee in support of his players:
“He’s hurt! He’s hurt!”
Mark Stoops comes to Boom Williams’ aid in the first half. pic.twitter.com/d9E0dHQDep
– KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) September 25, 2016
Stoops still has a lot of work to be done, but he earned a hell of a lot of respect from me yesterday in the way he carried himself during the game and with the media following the victory.
Speaking of the head ball coach:
Stoops easily coached his best game of the season, possibly career
Give credit where credit is due: In a very possible “win-or-go-home” game for Stoops, he showed his ability as a coach, and really made some impressive calls out there. I’m not willing to say this was his best all-around coaching effort, but this one was up there. Pull off performances like this every week, Stoops keeps his job for the long haul, and I’m not sure anyone would be upset by it.
Outside of Stoops, Eddie Gran did a fantastic job as a game manager. The offense didn’t put up impeccable numbers, but against a fairly stout Carolina defense, they more than held their own. At times, there wasn’t anything the Gamecocks could do to stop UK’s offensive attack, and I put that solely on Gran’s ability. I think Kentucky finally found their guy in Eddie Gran.
I’ll openly admit it, I’m not a DJ Eliot fan, haven’t been for two years now, but he did a solid job last night as well. The called blitzes worked, the 4-3 switches stopped the run, and (aside from a few ugly plays) the team tackled fairly well. Denzil Ware said following the defense’s success had everything to do with motivation, but I’ll tip my hat to Eliot as well. Nice work.
This is one fired up locker room!
– UK Stoops Troops (@UKStoopsTroops) September 25, 2016
Overall, it was a great team win, and there is a good bit to be optimistic about going forward. The term “must win” gets thrown around far too often, but this was without a doubt the perfect example of it. It wasn’t the prettiest, the team made a few costly mistakes, but they got the job done and came out on top.
Four more. Please.