EARLY ON IT looked it was going the way you feared it was going to go, the way Mark Stoops feared it was going to go, the way it went two years ago when Kentucky visited South Carolina and the Gamecocks rolled.
Here was Steve Spurrier’s squad Saturday night doing it all again, scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter, a third early in the second quarter on the way to a three-score lead with 44 minutes still to play.
“We knew and we talked about all week they would start fast here at home,” Stoops said afterward.
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Since taking over the job as Kentucky’s football coach, the former Florida State defensive coordinator had told his new players plenty of useful things, including Wednesday when in a fiery tone he told the players, and repeated to the media, that their preparation wasn’t even close to good enough.
But Saturday night, on the verge of getting steamrolled, the team told the new coach something: It wasn’t going to quit.
OK, so Kentucky ended up losing 35-28 to the host Gamecocks. A couple more plays down the stretch and who knows, the Cats might have pulled off the upset against the nation’s 13th-ranked team.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Stoops said.
But how it looked when it started and how it looked when it was over were two different things.
Down 27-7 early in the fourth quarter, Kentucky drove 75 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown with quarterback Jalen Whitlow hitting Demarco Robinson for a 4-yard score — ruled so by video review, much to the displeasure of the South Carolina fans.
Then when Carolina’s dual-sport star Bruce Ellington fumbled away the kickoff, with UK’s Dyshawn Mobley recovering, the Cats cashed in on the turnover. On a perfect play call, Whitlow found Ryan Timmons on a 14-yard scoring pass and suddenly the Cats had carved the lead to 27-21 with 11:50 remaining.
South Carolina marched right down the field to extend the lead back to 14 points. But yet again, UK didn’t fold its tents. The Cats came back and drove 81 yards in eight plays to pull within 35-28 with 4:03 remaining.
The home team recovered a squib kick, got a key first down when the UK defense appeared in position to make the play, and Spurrier had run his career record over the Cats to 20-1.
But this wasn’t the 54-3 thumping Kentucky took here two years ago, or the 31-0 blanking the Cats took last year at the hands of the Gamecocks in the second half at Commonwealth.
“We made their offense look like the Green Bay Packers,” quipped Spurrier after that game.
Whitlow may not be Aaron Rodgers but the best thing about this game may have been that the UK quarterback quandary is probably decided. The sophomore completed 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 17 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
It had been a stressful week. For the first time since the games began, the coach had criticized his team’s approach. And it responded.
“If we prepare the right way and fight, then I can live with the results,” Stoops said. “Because I know we’re getting better.”
Saturday night, that’s what his team told him.