When South Carolina lost to Kentucky the first two seasons as members of the Southeastern Conference (1992-'93), it was an indication of how far the USC program had to go to be competitive in the most competitive league in the nation.
The season, however, that taught me a lesson about the true nature of SEC football was 1995.
The Gamecocks had beaten the Cats 23-9 in Lexington the season before, and the prospects for the UK program that finished 1-10 in '94 weren't that much brighter coming into Columbia. As I always do, I went down to the field to watch pregame warmups, and after returning to the stands I remember laughing with friends that I “have seen high school teams bigger than Kentucky,” and “the Wildcats can't hang with our size.”
Despite Steve Taneyhill's best efforts offensively, that blue-clad bunch of runts amassed 447 yards of total offense, 310 yards on the ground, and outlasted Carolina 35-30. It was that day I realized that the “on any given day” adage was a reality in the SEC, and the day I understood how speed can cure a lot of ills.
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For many years at Spurs & Feathers I wrote “The View From the Other Side,” attended the opposing coach's post-game press conferences and interviewed the other team's players. The UK quarterback in '95 was Billy Jack Haskins (and no I did not make that up), and while he did throw for 137 yards, his main duty that day was to hand the ball to Mo Williams, who had TD runs of 2, 10, 20 and 43 yards.
It's surprising to hear Kentucky has a two-quarterback rotation for Saturday's game, because despite not having the overall talent to be a consistent winner, the Wildcats have always seemed to have talented QBs. I have interviewed several of them.
I got an almost five-minute one-on-one with Tim Couch after the 1998 game in Lexington, in which he led the ’Cats to 33-38 win, with a 29-of-42, 315-yard, 3 touchdown performance.
Couch had a quiet, very polite speaking voice, used more “we” than “I,” and was very humble about throwing TD passes of 2, 4, and 29 yards against Carolina that afternoon.
My interview with Jared Lorenzen in 2000 was a bit different. The Gamecocks held on for a 20-17 victory in Lexington, but Lorenzen completed 34-of-52 passes for 304 yards, passed for a touchdown, rushed for a score and threw two interceptions.
Lorenzen was certainly the biggest quarterback, and one of the biggest players period, I've spoken with. The UK media guide had him listed at 6-4, 260. That boy was a 300 pounder if he was an ounce, but he could hum that football and first-year Head Coach Hal Mumme's system allowed him to do just that.
Lorenzen's personality matched his girth. He was a bit more “I”-oriented, talked about what he should have done to win the game. He was polite, but very much sure of himself and his abilities.
There have been other outstanding leaders for the Cats: Shane Boyd, Andre Woodson, who passed for over 9,000 yards in his UK career, Mike Hartline, who directed the 2010 upset of 10th-ranked USC. Hartline threw for a career-high 349 yards and four touchdowns for the Wildcats), who had lost 10 straight to the Gamecocks and never beaten Spurrier in 17 tries.
But the Wildcats haven't identified “the man” at quarterback this season, so Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow will continue to share snaps. Smith leads the team in passing yardage, while Whitlow has completed 66 percent of his passes and rushed for 169 yards. Wasn't it Lou Holtz who said something to the effect that “if you have two quarterbacks who are equal, then you have two third-string quarterbacks.”
Even with the two signal-caller system the Wildcats are averaging 410 yards and 21.8 points a game. The problem is the defense is surrendering 375.8 yards and 23.2 points a game.
The Gamecocks are a 21-point favorite and Mark Stoops has inherited a program that didn't recruit well the last couple of years under Joker Phillips.
I think what the Gamecock Nation wants to see is a total team effort. The offense needs to continue to lead the way but eliminate the turnovers that have destroyed momentum.
The defense needs to just “go play football.” There were comments made that came close to finger pointing after last Saturday's game. Once that starts, it's game over. Defense is about 11 guys playing their assignments, trusting what they're doing and trusting each other. Whatever the problems might be, those 11 have to be on the same page as to how they are going to approach fixing their issues – as a unit or as individuals trying to make the “big play.”
It's game five and time for the Gamecocks to put it all together, play their best game, and show the progress they will certainly need before beginning a potentially-brutal three-game road trip.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!