Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s win at South Carolina

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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 16-10 win over South Carolina in Columbia on Saturday night:

1. This one belongs to the defense

Time after time, backs to the wall, Kentucky’s defense came through at Williams-Brice Stadium. Like the return of a bad rash, UK’s offense kept turning the ball over, putting its teammates on the other side of the ball in a bad spot, only to have Brad White’s troops save the day.

With Kentucky up 13-7 late in the third quarter, UK’s Josh Ali fumbled away on an end-around at the visitors’ 41-yard line. The Gamecocks picked up one first down and reached the Kentucky 26 only to have the Cats force Shane Beamer’s club into an incompletion on fourth-and-6, turning the ball over on downs with 13:33 left in the game.

Four plays later, like the return of a bad rash, Ali fumbled the ball away again. And again, South Carolina took possession in UK territory, this time at the 47-yard line. And again, Kentucky’s defense got the stop, forcing Luke Doty to miss receiver Dakereon Joyner on a fourth-and-3, turning the ball over on downs.

“Our mentality is when there’s a sudden change, good,” said UK linebacker DeAndre Square, who was outstanding all night.

Kentucky held South Carolina to just 216 yards of total offense and but 2.2 yards per rush. The Gamecocks only touchdown came on a 10-play, 75-yard march to start the second half. Other than that, all the home team could manage was a 54-yard field goal from Parker White.

2. Those turnovers have got to go

So head coach Mark Stoops said after the game. So quarterback Will Levis said after the game. The Cats lost the turnover battle 3-0 — two fumbles and an interception — on the night to fall to minus-9 in turnover margin for the season. And yet UK is 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the SEC. That can’t last, can it?

Actually, it could have been worse. Star running back Chris Rodriguez fumbled twice. Luckily, offensive guard Eli Cox recovered the first. Luckily, Rodriguez was able to recover his own fumble on the second.

The Cats’ first turnover of the night belonged to Levis, who threw a long interception to South Carolina’s Jaylan Foster in the second quarter. No harm, no foul there as the Gamecocks took over at their own 1-yard line. They did move out to the 37 before punting.

In crunch time in the fourth quarter, however, Stoops went back to Rodriguez, the big bruising back who helped grind out the yards the Cats needed to put the game away.

Still, Kentucky is a team playing with fire.

“You have to give them some credit,” Stoops said of South Carolina. “But we’ve got to be better.”

3. Kentucky is right where it hoped to be

The Cats are 4-0 overall. The Cats are 2-0 in the SEC. And now the Cats face their toughest four-game stretch of the season, starting Oct. 2 when Florida comes to Kroger Field. After that, it’s LSU at home (Oct. 9), Georgia on the road (Oct. 16) and Mississippi State on the road (Oct. 30).

One-third of the way through the season, we know Liam Coen’s offense has shown promise, if it can just hold onto the football. Coen has shown that he is willing to go with what works. Much like the 35-28 win over Missouri, Coen went with the run game at South Carolina — 44 runs, 22 passes — because that’s what (a) worked and (b) what the situations called for. The Cats gained 230 yards on the ground.

We also know that White’s defense can rise to the occasion. After shaky performances against Missouri and Chattanooga, Kentucky’s defense did what it had to do against the Gamecocks. Square led the way with eight tackles. Carrington Valentine and J.J. Weaver recorded sacks. And Jalen Geiger gave the secondary a lift with some excellent open-field tackles.

And the underrated Matt Ruffolo was clutch again, going 3-for-3 on field goals Saturday.

“Any time you win an SEC game on the road it’s a credit to your coaches and players,” Stoops said. “Like I told the team, I’m just excited for the next opportunity.”

SEC football final: Kentucky 16, South Carolina 10

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