To say that Kentucky defeated South Carolina in uncharacteristic ways would be accurate. I mean, the Cats used a stout defense and a dedication to the ground game on offense to outlast the Gamecocks — that is as un-Kentucky as it gets. Much has been made about the UK defense responding to criticism, particularly the harsh comments of Lee Corso on College Game Day. The UK rushing attack’s success against a legit SEC defense has also received plenty of praise.
Instead of looking at the big picture of how the Cats won, I want to focus on a few big plays that Kentucky either made, or avoided, that were undoubtedly keys to win. These may not be the plays that everyone is talking about, but these were the plays that won the game for the Cats.
The Cats made some big plays on offense, and none were bigger than this gem hidden early in UK’s first TD drive. Kentucky got the ball to start the second half trailing SC 7-3. Early in the drive CJ Conrad was flagged for an uncharacteristic holding penalty to set up a 2nd and 19 for the Cats. As all long-time UK football fans can attest, this has historically been a situation where the Cats may as well just punt on 2nd down; we are typically going to run some combination of draw/screen the next two downs for a total of six yards and punt anyhow. But instead Gran/Hinshaw dialed up a great call for a post-corner route to Jeff Badet. Almost 30 yards later, UK had a new set of downs.
Johnson followed that up with a quick-hitter to Badet for 10 more. Then on 1st and 10 from the SC 45 yard line, Kentucky narrowly avoided disaster. Stephen Johnson and Boom Williams had a mishap at the mesh point of the zone read, and Johnson dropped the ball — WHICH THEN BOUNCED ONE PERFECT HOP RIGHT BACK INTO HIS HANDS. That is a bounce that seems to always go the other way, but on Saturday WE got the break. On the next play Boom ripped off his 43-yard touchdown run to put the Cats up 10-7. Everyone remembers the Boom run, and rightly so, but that run never has a chance to happen if Johnson/Badet don’t execute a great, aggressive play call on 2nd and 19, or if Johnson doesn’t get one of the luckiest football bounces in recent Commonwealth history. In just over two minutes of game time, UK both made and avoided big plays to take the lead away from SC for good.
The defense was of course lights out on Saturday…maybe we should try to get Wesley Woodyard at every game. It is not an overstatement to say that this looked like a completely different unit this week. The Cats still need to improve a bit on tackling, but even that was better. I know South Carolina is not a great offensive team, but neither is New Mexico State, or Florida for that matter. We were markedly better across the board on defense this week, but the defensive play of the game to me is a no-brainer — Josh Allen’s sack as SC was driving to tie late in the 4th quarter. Kentucky had forced the Carolina offense into three straight 2nd and 10 situations, only to watch the Gamecocks pick up first downs on each second down play. For a fourth consecutive time UK forced a 2nd and 10, but this time there would be no conversion, as Allen beat his man to take down Brandon McIlwain for Kentucky’s then-third sack of the day. Every UK fan in Commonwealth was nervous that Kentucky was going to once again find a way to lose a game they should have won, but Allen made a play that just hasn’t happened often enough for the Cats — he made a winning play, a play that all but sealed the victory.
On special teams the play of the day was a play that never was. With just over 3 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Grant McKinniss found himself punting out of UK’s own end zone on 4th and 29. A low, short punt – his only poor punt of the day, mind you – was fielded by the Gamecock return man Fenton at the UK 47 yard line. Kentucky’s coverage units have been good all season long, but Fenton found a crease and took the punt back for what would have been a momentum-swinging TD against the Cats…if not for the flag on the play. SC was flagged for a block in the back on the return. The call was an obvious penalty and easy call for the official, but the bottom line is this: in Kentucky football, those calls traditionally go against UK, not for UK. The end result of the possession was a game-tying field goal instead of a go-ahead touchdown. Who knows how Kentucky would have responded if they had went into the 4th quarter trailing instead of being tied? That flag may have saved the game for the Cats.
Finally, I want to give a quick shout-out to the coaching staff — Eddie Gran in particular — for deciding to wait until the fourth quarter to unleash Benny Snell on the SC defense. This is my coaching decision of the day. I have always loved for a running back corps to have a closer, a back who comes in fresh when the defense is gassed and just pummels them. The freshman bruiser is a nightmare to tackle when defenses are fresh, but it is downright unfair for defenders to have to try to bring down a fresh Benny Snell after chasing Boom Williams from sideline to sideline for three quarters. As others have noted on this site, UK appears to have found their closer. Hats off to the staff for playing that hand to perfection on Saturday.
The bottom line is this: Kentucky both made and avoided plays on Saturday that they have not often made/avoided historically. It was as if the football gods smiled upon us, even if only for a day. But luck favors the prepared, and I believe this is one of the more prepared performances we’ve seen under Mark Stoops. The team appeared to have a game plan, and possibly even an identity. I don’t think we are going to go to Alabama and win Saturday or anything, but this game definitely left me feeling more hopeful than I have at any point this season. Stoops and his crew had to have this win, and they got the W Saturday in some of the most uncharacteristic ways possible. Hats off to the coaching staff, the players, and to BBN. Go Cats!