COLUMBIA — It had all the makings of the kind of miracle comeback South Carolina ended up on the wrong side of too many times last season.
Fourth quarter. Two scores down.
But the Gamecocks’ comeback Saturday night wasn’t enough, and instead USC discovered a different kind of misery — becoming Kentucky’s first road victim in five years. The Wildcats exploded for 24 unanswered points in the first half, and held on in the second to beat the Gamecocks, 26-22, before 82,178 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We play these games all the time where one play determines the winner,” USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. “This week, one or two didn’t go our way.”
USC also lost starting quarterback Connor Mitch, who suffered a separated right shoulder in the second quarter on what Spurrier termed an “ill-advised” option pitch to David Williams on third-and-4 at the Wildcats’ 17. Spurrier said returning from a separated shoulder “usually takes a year. But we’ll wait and see. I’ll let the doctors make that call.”
Spurrier said Perry Orth would likely be the starter next week at No. 10 Georgia. Orth was 13-for-20 Saturday, and threw a late touchdown to Jerell Adams which cut the margin to two. But three times in the second half the Gamecocks got inside the Kentucky 11 and were forced to kick field goals, and Chris Westry’s interception of Orth with 4:32 left sealed it for the Wildcats.
“I was rolling out to the left and tried to put air under it, and didn’t get enough on it,” said Orth, who was trying to hit receiver Deebo Samuel. “I’m pretty frustrated about that. We were moving the ball the whole second half. I throw that ball four feet higher like I planned to, and it’s probably a different outcome.”
Even so, Orth’s 33-yard touchdown to Adams had the Gamecocks within a two-point conversion of tying the game with 8:09 left. But Pharoh Cooper fumbled the ball streaking for the goal line, and Kentucky defensive end Denzil Ware scooped it up and went the distance for the Wildcats’ lone score of the second half.
“I honestly don’t know what happened,” said Cooper, who had nine catches for 100 yards. “I lost it. It shouldn’t have happened that way, but it did.”
For Kentucky, the victory snapped a 22-game losing skid in true road contests dating back to a victory over Louisville on the opening week of the 2010 campaign. It was also the Wildcats’ first victory at Williams-Brice Stadium since 1999, and their first SEC win since upsetting USC in Lexington last season.
“This is going to help us,” said Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops. “That momentum swing, being in a tough, tight game against an SEC opponent, to overcome it and win is huge.”
Kentucky (2-0, 1-0 SEC) responded to an early deficit by scoring 24 straight points in the first half, rushing the ball at will and carving up a Gamecocks defense which had appeared to make strides in its opener against North Carolina last week. The Wildcats gained 307 yards in the first half, evoking memories of the Gamecocks’ defensive struggles of a season ago.
“Tackling, that’s all I can really say,” said linebacker Skai Moore. “Missing tackles.”
South Carolina (1-1, 0-1) took the early lead on a Moore interception which produced a 1-yard Mitch touchdown run. Quarterback Patrick Towles then hit Garrett Johnson for 19 yards to pick up a fourth-and-4 on Kentucky’s ensuing series, setting up an 8-yard scoring dash by Mikel Horton which tied the game.
It was only the beginning. The Wildcats were suddenly unstoppable as USC was beset by the poor approach angles and busted tackles which plagued its defense a season ago. A 24-yard Boom Williams rush set up a go-ahead touchdown run by Jojo Kemp, a big gain by Kemp set up a field goal, and a 42-yard strike from Towles to Jeff Badet set up a one-yard dash by the quarterback.
It was so bad for USC, even the normally reliable Elliott Fry missed a field goal. Kentucky received the ball to open the third quarter, and everyone waited on the knockout blow — except, it never came. USC’s defense, so porous over the first two quarters, held Kentucky to five straight three-and-outs to open the second half, giving its offense a chance to get back in the game.
At halftime, Spurrier urged co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke to better disguise his coverages. “The first half we weren’t disgusing worth a flip,” he said. “Here’s our coverge, here’s man-to-man, here’s cover-two. I suggested, and he said, ‘We’ve got to disguise.’ I don’t care what you play, you can’t sit there and just tell them what you’re going to play all the time. So we did a much better job.”
Behind Orth the USC offense came alive, three times getting close to the Kentucky goal line, but settling for field goals in each case. The Gamecocks appeared to have first-and-goal at the 2 after a Shon Carson rush, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on center Alan Knott pushed them back to the 17. Four plays later, they had to kick.
“Alan said a guy was giving him crap and he gave him a shove,” Spurrier said. “That’s inexcusable. You can’t even shove a guy like that. They don’t let you do that.”
USC outgained Kentucky 256-92 in the second half behind Orth and tailback Brandon Wilds, who had 106 rushing yards in the game. But clearly, he wanted the ball more. “Not at all,” he said when asked if he touched the ball enough times. What was the Gamecocks’ problem near the goal line? “I didn’t get the ball,” Wilds added.
Cooper didn’t necessarily disagree. “They tried to throw a jump ball to me and I couldn’t bring that one down. Little bubble, I got stopped on the goal line. Probably should have run the ball, looking back at it,” he said. “We were running the ball pretty decent. I don’t know if it’s the play-calling or what the defensive line did, but we couldn’t get in.”
And in the end the Gamecocks were left with too little, too late, as Kentucky celebrated a rare victory on an opponent’s home field.
“Proud of the way the defense played in the second half,” Spurrier said. “Wish we’d have gotten one more stop to see what might could have happened.”