COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kentucky looked to be on the verge of unraveling in the first two minutes against South Carolina on Saturday, but by the end of the first quarter, the Wildcats settled in and maintained control.
Kentucky moved to 3-0 in a game that followed a similar pattern as its first two wins. The Wildcats won behind a stingy defense and a steady offense in yet another low scoring affair, winning 23-13.
Kentucky’s margin of victory this season is less than 10 points per game as Mark Stoops’ squad has held opponents in the teens while scoring in the 20s every game.
Kentucky’s win against South Carolina was its fourth straight in the series. Here’s how we graded the performance:
Kentucky’s offense is hard to judge, because it’s often efficient but rarely flashy. The Wildcats scored 24 points in their opener, 27 last week and were in the same neighborhood with 23 on Saturday. Kentucky came into the game averaging 345 yards (100th in the nation) through two games. The Wildcats again followed suit with 353 yards against South Carolina.
But the below-average numbers are shallow in meaning when it comes to Eddie Gran’s offense. The Wildcats sustained long drives and bled the clock in the second half Saturday. Time of possession is crucial for Kentucky, and the Wildcats won that category 36:49 to 23:11.
Sophomore running back Benny Snell again crossed the 100-yard mark as he was handed the ball a whopping 32 times. Snell’s 3.2 yards per carry was low and his longest run of the night was 12 yards in accumulating 102 yards. Quarterback Stephen Johnson rushed 7 times for 74 yards, including a 54-yard third down scramble that iced the game.
Johnson didn’t find the end zone through the air, as he finished 16-for-25 passing with 169 passing yards and an interception. But the clear positive in the passing game was how many teammates Johnson involved. Nine Wildcats recorded a catch, with senior Garrett Johnson leading the way with 4 catches for 41 yards.
Both of Kentucky’s touchdowns came in the controversial wildcat formation. Gran isn’t giving up on the formation anytime soon, and maybe he shouldn’t.
Kentucky’s offense through three games hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been productive enough to remain undefeated.
Kentucky held South Carolina to 13 points and has now held opponents to 17 or fewer points in its first three games. A Kentucky defense hasn’t done that since 2008.
The Wildcats’ so-far dominant defense is the perfect partner for their low-scoring offense. And the offense deserves credit for giving its defense extended breaks as Johnson, Snell and Co. are sustaining long drives.
The most impressive thing about Kentucky’s defense Saturday was that it shut down South Carolina without linebacker Jordan Jones, who is arguably Kentucky’s best defensive player.
While Jones was held out with a shoulder injury, his replacement, sophomore Eli Brown, was tied for third on the team with 6 tackles, including 1 tackle for a loss.
The Cats forced 2 turnovers via interceptions by safety Mike Edwards and corner Derrick Baity, who picked off South Carolina’s Jake Bentley on the Gamecocks’ final drive. Baity led Kentucky with 8 tackles.
Kentucky was outgained 358-353. Bentley went on a completions spree in the second half and finished with 304 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24-for-36 passing. A big chunk of his production came on a 68-yard touchdown toss to Deebo Samuel to open the game.
While the Wildcats struggled against the pass at times, the run defense was again stellar. South Carolina rushed for 54 yards and averaged less than 3 yards per attempt. Kentucky’s run defense is ranked No. 3 in the country through three games, giving up just 57 rushing yards per game.
That’s good enough to keep Stoops satisfied.
Special teams: A
It looked like an A-plus-plus when compared to South Carolina’s special teams.
Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, connecting from 21, 27 and 44 yards. South Carolina employed two kickers and they combined to go 0-for-3 on field goals — albeit lengthy ones from 42, 52 and 54 yards. The Gamecocks also missed an extra point.
Kentucky graduate transfer punter Matt Panton was effective as well. He punted four times with a 44.5-yard average, including a long of 54 yards.
Kentucky had no opportunities in the return game and the Wildcats managed to keep the ball out of Samuel’s hands on kickoff.
Kentucky has beaten the teams it’s supposed to, but the Wildcats weren’t supposed to beat South Carolina, at least not from an outside perspective. But there seems to be a confidence brewing within the program.
Stoops had an edge to him after the game, as did his players. There’s a good reason for that, because Kentucky is 3-0 for the first time since 2010.