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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky's biggest victory under coach Mark Stoops has players trying to keep perspective as they also look ahead to their next achievement.
From the Wildcats' standpoint, everything's on the table after Saturday night's 45-38 upset of South Carolina. Picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's East division, they're in a three-way tie for second place and part of the title discussion after consecutive victories that surprised everybody but them.
"We're definitely in there now," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Definitely, no question. We're there to stay, for sure."
A victory Saturday against nonconference Louisiana-Monroe puts Kentucky (4-1, 2-1) within a game of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Reaching that six-win threshold for consideration will be tough with SEC games against LSU and No. 3 Mississippi State following ULM, not to mention matchups against East rivals Missouri and Georgia.
But after rallying twice from 14-point deficits to beat the Gamecocks, the Wildcats believe the program is turning the corner toward becoming the competitive team that Stoops said they'd be upon his hiring two years ago.
"If we go out and win next week and take care of business, I think we do (turn the corner)," said the second-year coach, smiling more after this victory than the other five in his brief tenure.
"I mean that. That's the thing in this business, you've got seven days to be humbled. And then we'll keep that in mind and really appreciate and respect all wins and then try to get back to work and really play a quality game next week.
No doubt, Kentucky has room for improvement despite having its first SEC winning streak since 2009.
The Wildcats defense allowed South Carolina to score 14 and 21 unanswered points along with 500 yards. Their offense stumbled out of the gate and relied on the Wildcat formation for all five touchdowns, including the flea-flicker-style trick play for the 48-yard, go-ahead score in the third quarter.
On the other hand, that play showed how those units came up big in the clutch. The Wildcats intercepted Dylan Thompson three times and scored 10 points off two, the biggest being Alvin "Bud" Dupree's game-winning interception return for a TD with 2:29 left after Mike Douglas' deflection.
Running back Jojo Kemp meanwhile thrived with direct snaps and rushed 17 times for 131 yards and three TDs, all career highs. Though Kentucky wants to throw the ball, Stoops said he won't shy away from using the wildcat often if it's there.
"I think it's always that old cliché, you're going to scratch where it itches," he said. "If you can't get it stopped, you're going to keep on doing it."
What's becoming clear is the Wildcats' growing resolve, which helped them stay close in a three-overtime loss at Florida and gutted out a satisfying win against South Carolina that sparked a joyous on-field celebration with fans.
Whether they maintain that determination as the competition gets tougher remains to be seen, but Kentucky players don't seem fazed by adversity like they were before. They'll need that attitude to make the postseason an option.
"We're 4-1, which is unbelievable," Towles said. "But we're going to move forward. We're going to win a lot of games because the tenacity and the passion that we showed is going to win us a lot of football games."