It’s almost football time in ... Columbia, S.C. Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how Kentucky’s football game at South Carolina will play out on Saturday.
South Carolina has played one of the best defenses in the country (Georgia, No. 3 at 221.3 yards per game allowed) and one of the worst (East Carolina, No. 123 at 482 YPG allowed) and fared similarly, as far as moving the ball. It threw for exactly 214 yards against both and rushed for 100 yards against the Pirates before finishing with four fewer against the Bulldogs last week.
Kentucky’s defense hasn’t seemed lights-out, particularly on third-down bids; it has forced quite a few (49) but given up 44.9 percent of those tries (22) to its three opponents. Only Missouri has been worse on third down among Southeastern Conference teams. Statistically, though, Wildcats so far rank among the most formidable defenses in the country: they’re 21st in total yards allowed (275) and 54th in scoring defense (20.3 points per game). The latter number ranks eighth in the SEC, right behind South Carolina (19.0), which sits 27th nationally in total yards allowed (287.7).
A lot has been made of UK’s number of sacks (seven, or one if you exclude the six against ULM in the opener), but 15 of the Cats’ 17 quarterback hurries were generated over the last two weeks, an indicator that the pass rush is doing something right; for context, UK had just 26 QB hurries in all of 2020.
“In this day and age, everybody understands, that’s something we have to temper with our guys. ‘Hey, it’s not just about sacks,’” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said this week. “It’s about affecting the quarterback, doing your job, running, getting out of the stack when the ball is throw, and it’s really hard because it’s mentally taxing. If I told anyone on this call, ‘Hey, you’re gonna take a test and you’re only get one correct and nine incorrect,’ you’d feel really poor about yourself.”
New South Carolina defensive coordinator Clayton White spent the last four seasons as Western Kentucky’s defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach, and his defenses there had a knack for containing opponents on third down. Through three games South Carolina has limited foes to an 11 of 37 conversion rate on those attempts (Georgia was 9-for-12 while Eastern Illinois and East Carolina combined to go 2-for-25).
Kentucky’s offense so far has been strong in that part of the game (19 of 34, or 55.88%). The Cats will have to continue taking advantage in those situations while improving its own third-down defense against a club that’s not had similar success. The Gamecocks are 17 of 43 (39.53%) on third down overall, and especially struggled against East Carolina (2-for-12) in a 20-17 win decided at the buzzer.
Liam Coen’s unit failed to establish the run last week in part due to a concerted effort to hone things in the passing game, most notably in the intermediate part of the field. Thirteen of Will Levis’ 23 completions were for under 10 yards, a better percentage than either of the first two weeks (and especially against Missouri, where seven of 10 went deep), so that could be called a win.
Chunk plays could be back on the menu in a big way this week, though. J.T. Daniels’ 23 completions last week against the Gamecocks, 15 went for 11 or more yards. It was just one game, but Georgia’s quarterback thrived against a South Carolina secondary that saw Bulldogs frequently blow past them down field. Kentucky’s got enough speed at the top of its rotation to have similar success, but Levis is going to have to prove early that his medium passes weren’t just a fluke against an FCS team, especially if the Gamecocks come out in heavy cover-two protection, like the Mocs showed most of last Saturday.
It would help the Cats’ cause to actually get something going on the ground again, too. This offense purrs loudest when the run game is in a rhythm — just ask Sean McVay — and Kentucky probably could have blown the Mocs away if it had favored that option on Saturday. South Carolina’s defensive line could make that difficult, though; Zacch Pickens is a former five-star recruit and edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare is probably going to be a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft. It’s a unit with tons of reps under its belt going up against a “Big Blue Wall” that has dominated past meetings, but that this year features two new bricks (Dare Rosenthal, Eli Cox) and one (Luke Fortner) that’s in a new position. How this one goes could ultimately boil down to this matchup.
“The biggest thing we’re preparing for is their front four, of course, and the linebackers,” offensive tackle Darian Kinnard said. “That’s who we’re gonna see the whole game. I’m never gonna say that a defense is not good or who’s the bigger threat, because at the end of the day it’s about going down there and getting the win as a team. I feel confident that we’re gonna go down there and do our job.”
South Carolina receiver Josh Vann won several one-on-one battles against Georgia defensive backs, and he’s had more than 100 yards in each of the last two games. The Gamecocks could generate some big plays, too, if UK’s defensive backs continue to struggle in the open field and if they get their somewhat sluggish run game (151.3 YPG, 10th in the league) going against a defense that’s afforded some wide-open lanes the last couple of weeks.
South Carolina was penalized nine times for 70 yards last week, and is averaging about eight flags per game. Kentucky is averaging six penalties in each of its outings, and is coming off a game that saw eight flags thrown its direction.
Six of UK’s mistakes last Saturday were related to procedure, as was a seventh late in the game that Charlotte declined since it got to within a yard of the goal line on a first-down play. Between hiccups like that and a distressing overall turnover margin — at minus-six, UK is tied with West Virginia (2-1) and Florida State (0-3) as the worst team in the country in that department — the fact that Kentucky’s 3-0 is something of a minor miracle.
The “glass half full” view would peg UK as a team that can quickly bandage self-inflicted wounds. The opposite take would say this is the kind of week where those things will finally catch up with the Wildcats; it’s easy to talk about fixing mistakes, but it becomes a lot easier to actually fix them once they’ve reaped consequences. The types of mistakes Kentucky’s been making tend to multiply in loud, hostile environments, like the one it’s walking into Saturday.
Kinnard said last week’s performance was an eye-opener.
“It does reset focus a lot,” Kinnard said. “It puts everything in perspective. We’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Kentucky 28, South Carolina 24: To be completely up front, I don’t feel awesome about this pick. It’s hard to know what to make of either team based on the sample size we have of each, so I’m deferring to the program that’s on stabler footing and that has had the better of the other in this series for some time. This absolutely has the potential to be an early feather in Shane Beamer’s cap, though, and help him make some in-roads on the recruiting trail. UK’s been firmly ahead of South Carolina in the SEC pecking order for a few years, now, and you can guarantee flipping that script is high on the Gamecocks’ list of priorities.
MVP: Jordan Wright. A week watching from the sidelines ends up doing the senior a lot of good. He records a sack and an interception that swings the game in Kentucky’s favor late.
Good gamble: Kentucky’s averaging 36 points per game. You can get even odds for UK on the “over” for a total of 27.5 points. If you like the Wildcats to win, I’d expect it to be more based on the offense than the defense. Bet this instead of the spread.
The last word
The city of Columbia, S.C., is requiring the use of masks at Williams-Brice Stadium, which anticipates a crowd of about 70,000 to take in the Kentucky-South Carolina bout on Saturday night. South Carolina Coach Shane Beamer this week implored his fans to develop superpowers:
“If you’re wearing a mask, you ought to be so loud that the sound of your voice tears a hole in your mask. I don’t know if that’s humanly possible.”