Ten days away from the start of the 2019 Kentucky football season, we’re counting down the top ten games of the Mark Stoops era.
The first win on the list is Stoops’ first win away from Commonwealth Stadium. This victory snapped a 22-game road losing streak for Kentucky football and set the tone for future Kentucky performances on the road.
No. 10: Kentucky 26, South Carolina 22 – September 12, 2015
Before Kentucky and South Carolina went at it, the Cats were coming off an over-achieving 5-7 season that ended on a sour note. After starting the season 5-1, with a defining victory over the Gamecocks a year ago, the Cats lost the remaining six games on their schedule. But with plenty of returning pieces, it felt like the Kentucky rebuild was way ahead of schedule. Except there was one more monkey to get off their back…
The road losing streak.
Kentucky had lost 22-consecutive times on the road dating back to 2009.
Fresh off a narrow victory to Louisiana-Lafayette to open up the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium, and with Florida on the horizon the following week, this game was crucial to keep Kentucky’s momentum rolling. This season had hopes of not only ending the road losing streak, but a bowl-less streak that had haunted the Cats for five years.
In front of a raucous William-Brice Stadium, the Patrick Towles led Kentucky Wildcats looked to seize the moment.
A First-Half Statement
After throwing an interception from his own three-yard line on the first drive of the game — which led to a South Carolina touchdown on the next play — Patrick Towles needed an answer to silence the South Carolina faithful and his critics.
The ensuing drive, Towles marched the Wildcats 80 yards down field and executed a crucial 4th&4 dart to Garrett Johnson, which was followed by a Mikel Horton touchdown run to tie the game at seven and kill the Gamecocks’ early momentum.
Kentucky would rattle off 17 unanswered points following the Horton touchdown behind a prolific rushing attack (including another JoJo Kemp touchdown) on four straight drives. It was capped off with a barreling run into the end zone by Patrick Towles to give the Cats a 24-7 lead before the half.
Ware’s Scoop for Two
Kentucky was on the ropes after the prolific Shannon Dawson offense (trust me, it’s sarcasm) stalled out in the entire second half. Despite Kentucky’s defense having a stellar game, when your offense isn’t moving the ball, it puts the defense in some bad spots. This gave the Gamecocks an opportunity to mount a comeback.
From down 24-7, the Gamecocks fought all the way back to make it a 24-22 ball game. With 8:09 left in the game, the ole ball coach decided to go for two to tie the game and put the pressure on the stagnant Kentucky offense to win the game.
Steve Spurrier called a Wildcat run with Pharoh Cooper taking the snap. South Carolina’s star wide receiver dropped the ball on the goal line. Denzil Ware scooped it up to take it to the house for a MASSIVE four-point swing to give Kentucky a 26-22 lead.
Ware’s scoop and score ended up being the only points UK scored in the second half.
Looking back on the moment Ware said, “At the end of the game, in their stadium, hearing everybody go quiet…It felt good. I felt like Steph (Curry) when he hit the three in the fourth and silenced the game.”
Welcome, Chris Westry
In his first game in blue and white, Westry corralled a quiet four tackles in the week one victory. In week two, Chris Westry made his name known amongst the Big Blue Nation.
Westry struck on the first play of the second quarter when he sped by the South Carolina right tackle to get his first career sack at the expense of Connor Mitch to force a fourth down after Kentucky grabbed a 14-7 lead.
Then, at the goal line midway through the fourth quarter, Westry broke up a crucial pass in the end zone, which forced South Carolina to settle for a field goal. Considering Kentucky won by four points, trading seven for three here was massive for the Cats.
For the finale, Westry promptly introduced himself to the Kentucky faithful with a crucial interception. South Carolina was driving down the field, for the inevitable go-ahead score that would shatter Kentucky fans’ hearts once again.
After marching into Kentucky’s territory, Perry Orth — who stepped in for the injured Connor Mitch — scrambled to his left and threw across his body. Orth’s passed sailed right into the hands of Chris Westry. It was the first interception of Westry’s career, earning him SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Kentucky milked the remaining four minutes to walk out of Columbia, South Carolina with a 26-22 victory to win their first road game since 2009.
In the immediate aftermath, some say that Kentucky’s locker room that night was one of the happiest locker rooms they had ever seen. After the game, Stoops even admitted that it was fun and he was jacked up to get this win for a program that hadn’t yet arrived, but took a massive step forward with the win.
After the road win, Kentucky would go on to lose to Florida the following week. Kentucky finished the season 5-7 and bowl-less after a crippling five-game losing streak midway through the season.
How Kentucky finished the season factored into where this game fell on the list, but we can’t discount its significance. It was the season-defining victory that allowed Kentucky to step forward as a program. This game also opened the door to much bigger road victories down the line, which has given Stoops’ troops a reputation for rising to the occasion on the road.
In some ways, this game shaped the SEC East we see today. It was truly an end of a dynasty as Steve Spurrier stepped down as the ole ball coach exactly one month after the loss. As we know all too well, Kentucky has now defeated South Carolina five straight seasons, a streak that will be put to the test in Columbia September 28.