Wildcats, Gamecocks look to avoid 0-3 start in SEC play when they face off in Columbia
When Kentucky and South Carolina square off this weekend the two SEC East rivals will be doing so with a sense of urgency. Last week both the Wildcats and Gamecocks found themselves down in a hole early due to defensive touchdowns by Mississippi State and Missouri respectively, and both would wind up losing their games by double-digit margins.
Some pretty shoddy offensive line play has been a big culprit for both squads as they’ve lost their mojo after some early success. Despite having one of the more experienced teams in the SEC, South Carolina now stands at 1-3 and is in danger of seeing its season spiral down as Georgia and Florida lie in wait after this. The Cats came thisclose to being 3-1 if not for a late meltdown vs. Florida two weeks ago and have a more manageable schedule ahead.
Kentucky at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -3
When Kentucky Has the Ball
In his first start against Florida, Sawyer Smith, who has replaced an injured Terry Wilson, was 23-of-35 for 267 yards but had three interceptions. Last week he had just one INT, but it was a biggie. Just a minute into the game against Mississippi State, Smith watched his second pass of the day get picked off and returned for a touchdown. That was the beginning of a 15-for-41 performance. Look for more high-percentage tosses (he threw five screen passes vs. Florida two weeks ago) early in this game to get him back on track.
In Starkville, A.J. Rose got his first start of the season at running back and he did not disappoint. Though he only had nine carries, he piled up 105 yards, including five runs which went for first downs. Rose and erstwhile starter Kavosiey Smoke must establish some running room here. The Big Blue went just 1-for-12 on third down vs. the Bulldogs due to a lot of third-and-long situations.
After Chance Poore (a rather unfortunate name for a kicker at that) missed a chip-shot field goal that would’ve given Kentucky the chance for a win vs. Florida, head coach Mark Stoops gave his kicker a vote of confidence. The confidence didn’t last long. Poore missed two of his three attempts against MSU and eventually, Matt Ruffolo was brought in to make a 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Beware in a close game.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Just like Sawyer Smith above, South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski has been pressed into duty because of an injury. With Jake Bentley sidelined due to a foot injury, Hilinski has taken over and it's been a mixed bag for the true freshman. Last week was not pretty, as he connected on just 13 of 30 passes with a touchdown and one soul-crushing, 100-yard pick-six. Two weeks ago though, Hilinski threw for 324 yards on 36 completions against mighty Alabama, so he has flashed signs of potential.
To help out the young quarterback, the Gamecocks need to give the ball to Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster and see if they can't at least move the chains. Dowdle had a 100-yard game against Alabama while Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster has had his moments but the two combined for 15 rushing yards on 24 carries last week against Missouri. Kentucky has been generous against the run (154 ypg, last in SEC) this far so perhaps Dowdle and Feaster can take advantage.
South Carolina has been outscored 58-34 in the second half of their three losses. Part of that is the fact that the defense is on the field for an average of 34:31 per game. Last week the defense played pretty stout early on, including a goal-line stand, but eventually, they gave up 10- and 14-play TD drives in the second half. The Gamecock offense must play steadier and keep the ball away from the Wildcats to protect their defense from another late collapse.
I think we can all agree that in the SEC every game is a “must-win” game. But this is one of those games that could define the course of a season for both teams. The winner puts its season back on the rails and the loser looks like it could be heading for a staycation during December (i.e., no bowl game).
Neither team is bereft of motivation. But the Wildcats have quietly gone out and won five straight games in this series, four of them by less than one score. Last year’s 24-10 loss to Kentucky marked the worst offensive day of the regular season for South Carolina. Yet, there is no way I can see the Gamecocks opening the season 1-4.
Prediction: South Carolina 28, Kentucky 20
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.