After their devastating loss at Ole Miss last weekend, the Kentucky Wildcats will try to pick themselves back up Saturday when they host the South Carolina Gamecocks.
No. 13 Kentucky (4-1, 1-1 SEC) had running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. back from a suspension and put a charge into the ground game with 72 rushing yards. However, the last two Wildcat possessions ended with fumbles by quarterback Will Levis. To make matters worse, they happened when the offense was in the red zone, so the turnovers also denied not one, but two shots at a potential game-tying field goal.
Meanwhile, South Carolina (3-2, 0-2) has won two in a row, but they were against non-conference opponents (Charlotte and FCS South Carolina State).
Saturday will be the 34th meeting between the Gamecocks and Wildcats in a series that dates back to 1937. South Carolina leads the all-time series 18-14-1 but Kentucky has won two in a row and seven of the last eight matchups.
South Carolina at No. 13 Kentucky
When South Carolina Has the Ball
In their last two games, the Gamecocks' offense has scored 106 combined points. But again those were against a Conference USA team (Charlotte) and an FCS program (South Carolina State). In the last two SEC matchups – against Arkansas and Georgia – South Carolina managed a combined 37 points.
Spencer Rattler has not been as productive in leading the Gamecocks' attack as some envisioned. He enters this game with 1,120 passing yards and more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (four). However, the coaching staff thinks the highly regarded Oklahoma transfer is headed in the right direction.
"I think he's got more — I don't want to say confidence — but he's done a great job of being a leader the last few weeks," Beamer said to The State. "And he continues to get more and more comfortable and confident with what he's doing and what we're doing around him as well."
Rattler will need to put together his best performance of the season if South Carolina wants to have any success against Kentucky's stingy defense. Even after last week's loss to Ole Miss, the Wildcats are fourth in the SEC in both scoring (14.8 ppg) and total (297.4 ypg) defense. UK has been particularly strong against the pass, giving up just two touchdowns through the air so far compared to four interceptions. Opponents are completing barely half of their passes (50.7 percent completion rate) even though the Wildcats have managed just six sacks in five games.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
The big news for the Wildcats is that Levis may not play on Saturday. He's reportedly a game-time decision, according to CatsPause.
Not only did Levis suffer a dislocated finger in last weekend's 22-19 loss at Ole Miss, but also a foot injury. Levis has been seen wearing a protective boot this week.
If Levis is out, the redshirt freshman Laiya Sheron will get the call. During his brief career at Kentucky, Sheron has made just one appearance and it came in mop-up duty in a 31-0 win over FCS Youngstown State. Sherson has yet to attempt a pass for the Wildcats.
"We're physically in a spot where we're banged up more than we are mentally," Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference. "It is what it is. It's a tough grind."
The uncertainty at quarterback puts even more importance on the running game, which has been struggling all season. UK ranks dead last in the conference with just 86.8 rushing yards per game and only 2.5 yards per carry. With Rodriguez back in the mix, hopefully that will change, and soon. Last season, Rodriguez went for 144 yards in the Wildcats' 16-10 win over South Carolina. This season, the Gamecocks are second to last in stopping the run, allowing 185.4 yards per game and a total of 10 rushing touchdowns so far. Last Thursday, in a game that was shifted due to the threat of Hurricane Ian, the Gamecocks surrendered 145 yards on 30 carries to South Carolina State.
If Levis is out, that certainly gives the less talented Gamecocks a chance to pull off the road upset. However, they will need better quarterback play from Rattler if they're going to get the win.
No matter if it's Levis or Sheron, expect Kentucky to rely on the run this week with Rodriguez. South Carolina is 106th in the entire FBS in rushing defense.
Even if Levis can play, don't expect the Wildcats to do a lot in the passing game considering the injuries that he suffered last week. The Gamecocks can keep this game close, but Kentucky's talent will likely prove to be too much in the end.
Prediction: Kentucky 28, South Carolina 24
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— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders, and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
*Price as of publication.