Kentucky is in a much worse place than South Carolina, as the Wildcats have suffered three consecutive defeats since opening the season with back-to-back wins. Last weekend, the Wildcats were no match for LSU, falling to the nation's top-ranked team by a 35-7 final. They have now been outscored 83-17 the last two times out and are clearly outclassed by elite SEC foes.
"I think this team understands that they can play with anybody and that we played with this team, the number one team, in spurts," said head coach Joker Phillips.
As for the Gamecocks, they opened the season with four consecutive victories, including a few narrow wins over teams they were expected to handle a bit more easily. Therefore, it didn't come as a huge shock that the team fell to Auburn last weekend by a 16-13 final. Prior to the setback, Steve Spurrier's club was considered a darkhorse national title contender, especially considering that neither LSU or Alabama appears on USC's regular season schedule. It will be interesting to see how the players respond this weekend.
"We're not heartbroken," said Spurrier. "We haven't played well enough to expect to win. We lost to this team last year and we still came back and won the Eastern Division. If we can regroup somehow offensively, we're going to be okay."
South Carolina owns a 14-7-1 series advantage over Kentucky, but as mentioned the Wildcats won last season's matchup with a narrow 31-28 decision.
Looking at last weekend's game against LSU, Kentucky managed only 155 total yards, including a woeful 66 passing yards. The Wildcats, who were 3-of-15 on third-down conversion attempts, got little from quarterback Morgan Newton, who completed just 6-of-20 passes. Sure, he threw one touchdown and wasn't intercepted, but his overall performance simply wasn't good enough. Freshman Maxwell Smith was given the chance to play a bit, and the young quarterback had even less success.
"Morgan made a couple of plays down the stretch, but he had to play better than he is playing right now," said Phillips. "He is not playing fast and holding the ball way too long."
UK permitted LSU just 169 passing yards last week, and has limited its opponents to 175 passing yards or less in four of its five games, including three straight. On a down note, the eight passes completed by LSU averaged 21.1 yards, and the Tigers also notched three rushing touchdowns.
"We were here to fight," said Kentucky linebacker Ronnie Sneed. "We knew they were going to try to run us over, and we weren't going to bow down."
Kentucky is completely void of offensive star power, so it doesn't come as a surprise that the team is generating a mere 15.0 ppg and 255.6 total ypg. The Wildcats average a modest 3.3 yards per rush and a low 4.7 yards per pass attempt. Newton has completed exactly 50 percent of his passes and has thrown six interceptions. La'Rod King has four touchdown receptions, but even he has some room for improvement.
The Wildcats are yielding 24.6 ppg and 362.4 total ypg to opponents, as the defense has been mediocre at best. Clearly, Kentucky has been better against the pass than the run, as opposing quarterbacks have more interceptions (seven) than TD passes (six), and have completed fewer than half of their attempts.
Considering the talent that exists on the South Carolina offense, it is hard to believe that the team finished with only 13 points against Auburn last week. Sure, star wideout Alshon Jeffery did haul in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Stephen Garcia, and stud tailback Marcus Lattimore reached the end zone on a 15-yard run, but the offense finished with a mere 289 total yards and turned the ball over four times. Garcia, who makes far too many mistakes, was picked off twice.
"Offensively, we could do nothing," said Spurrier. "We were pretty sad, pretty sad the entire game. We couldn't run the ball and we're not a really good passing team."
Defensively, South Carolina held Auburn to two touchdowns last week, but one of the scores came with just 1:38 remaining and proved to be the difference. The Gamecocks came up with four interceptions and permitted a mere 3.7 yards per rushing attempt and 9.3 yards per pass completion, but those numbers still weren't good enough to ward off defeat.
Through five games, South Carolina is generating 31.8 ppg and 372.0 total ypg while limiting opponents to 23.8 ppg and 310.2 ypg. The aforementioned Lattimore has rushed for 677 yards and nine touchdowns, while Garcia has run for three scores and passed for four more. Unfortunately, his nine interceptions are glaring, thus prompting Spurrier to make a change. Sophomore Connor Shaw will start this game, and while his body of work this season is minimal (4-of-11 for 29 yards), the Ole Ball Coach felt it necessary to try something different.