For USC, victory over Kentucky could hinge on Gamecocks’ grind game

South Carolina has not lost to Kentucky at Williams-Brice Stadium since 1999. Head coach Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks won 35-28 at home in 2013. (File/AP)

One more first down probably would have made the difference, but South Carolina couldn’t get it. Leading by a slim margin in the fourth quarter and facing a third-and-short, the Gamecocks threw the ball incomplete — giving Kentucky the opportunity it needed to stun USC last season in Commonwealth Stadium.

Many of those same conditions were present last Thursday in the Gamecocks’ season opener against North Carolina, when USC faced another late third-and-short while holding another tenuous advantage on the scoreboard. This time, the outcome was very different — Brandon Wilds ran for a first down, South Carolina ran out the clock, and the Gamecocks celebrated a 17-13 victory in Charlotte.

“We didn’t do a lot of things very well, but we won the turnover game and we ran the clock out,” head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday at his weekly media briefing. “So we did some good things to win the game offensively.”

USC’s defense may have let those three two-score leads slip away last season, but it wasn’t helped by a Gamecocks offense unable to mount consistent, late drives to grind out the clock and keep opponents off the field. But all the things that went wrong against the likes of Kentucky last season went right against UNC, where the Gamecocks intercepted three passes and dominated time of possession — just in time to face the Wildcats again.

Kentucky (1-0), which meets USC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, lost six straight to end last season, and needed a touchdown with 57 seconds remaining to hold off Louisiana-Lafayette 40-33 in its opener. The Wildcats haven’t beaten an SEC opponent since Bud Dupree’s return of a tipped pass for a touchdown capped a 45-38 comeback over the Gamecocks a year ago.

“I hear it every day,” USC graduate transfer safety Isaiah Johnson said, when asked how much his teammates talk about that game. “They’re real passionate about it. They wanted to win that last year. We talk about it every day — we want to get better every day so we can beat these guys Saturday, and I guess get revenge.”

Grinding out the final minutes, just as USC (1-0) did against the Tar Heels, would certainly aid that effort. With starting quarterback Connor Mitch still developing as a downfield passer, South Carolina relied heavily on its running game against UNC, and controlled time of possession in the second half. The Gamecocks weren’t always able to turn that possession into points, but they did keep the ball out of North Carolina’s hands by running the ball on their final 15 offensive plays of the game.

“We play a lot of these games, (and in) almost every dang one of them — if you (don’t) run out the clock, you’re probably going to lose. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t. Last week we were fortunate to make two first downs and run out what, 3:40, something like that,” Spurrier said.

“We got beat several times last year in a similar way, and we’re trying to prevent it from happening this year. We’d love to have a two- to three-touchdown win somewhere along the way. It could happen, but we’ve just got to prepare to be involved in a lot of close games. We really do. Maybe we’ll get comfortable in that situation.”

Mitch was slated to return to practice Tuesday after missing time with a hip pointer which kept him out for parts of the second and fourth quarters against UNC. Tailback Brandon Wilds (bruised shoulder), and receivers Deebo Samuel (strained hamstring) and Terry Googer (thigh bruise) also were on track to return Tuesday, Spurrier said.

Former cornerback Jamari Smith has been converted to receiver to bolster depth there, Spurrier added, and one-time tight end Clayton Stadnik is working at center along with starter Alan Knott and true freshman Zack Bailey of Summerville, listed as second-team at the position. Backup center Cody Waldrop was lost for the season with a broken bone above his ankle suffered in practice Saturday, when a defensive lineman fell into his leg.

Against North Carolina, the Gamecocks didn’t complete a pass longer than 27 yards, leading Spurrier to use Wilds, tailback David Williams and receiver Pharoh Cooper at times under center. “We planned it a bit. Probably will plan it a little bit again,” Spurrier said. And this time try and use that grind-it-out ground game to finish the job against the Wildcats, who haven’t won at Williams-Brice Stadium since 1999.

“That’s sort of the type of team we are right now,” Spurrier said. “Winning by three or four touchdowns, I don’t know if that’s in our DNA right now.”