By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A rocky ride got a little bumpier for Kentucky following a 24-7 loss to South Carolina Saturday night.
Still trying to find themselves after losing veteran quarterback Terry Wilson for the season in a 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan on Sept. 7, the Wildcats are still struggling to score and the issues continue to mount. Kentucky scored 97 points in its first three games but have tallied just 20 points and two touchdowns in the past two contests.
“I’m very disappointed in the game and the way we played,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “… their backs were against the wall and came in here and played a very good game — very tough, very physical and beat us in all areas.”
The Wildcats (2-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) avoided a shutout when Chris Rodriguez scored Kentucky’s lone touchdown on a 2-yard run with 2:32 remaining. Rodriguez led Kentucky’s rushers with 65 yards.
Although far from perfect themselves, the Gamecocks ended a five-game losing streak to the Cats, which have never beaten South Carolina three consecutive times at Willams-Brice Stadium.
In four of those past five contests against South Carolina, Kentucky averaged 184 yards rushing and wore down South Carolina’s defense. The Wildcats didn’t get close to that number Saturday night, with just 115 yards rushing compared to the Gamecocks’ 247 yards on the ground.
The takeaway is that Kentucky won’t play two straight games on the road again this season. They even get a week off to regroup following a brutal nine-quarter stretch that has the Wildcats scrambling for answers to get back on track.
“We’ve got to keep our spirits high,” Kentucky junior Lynn Bowden said. “I don’t think frustration is a word (to use). We just need to come together. They had a good game plan and they’re a good team. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Kentucky’s offense wasn’t that great in a 28-13 loss to Mississippi State last week and things continued to spiral in the first quarter against the Gamecocks. The Wildcats managed just 37 yards and one first down in the opening frame.
Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith, who was bruised and battered following the loss to the Bulldogs, wasn’t up to par and threw for just 90 yards, with only 27 of those coming in the first half. Smith spent most of the week getting healthy enough to play instead of getting more much-needed repetitions.
“It was a tough day offensively, and Sawyer is giving us everything he can,” Stoops said. “He’s banged up, that’s the bottom line. We don’t need to make excuses and there are no excuses. We need to do a better job and we’ve got to get some guys healthy.”
To open the second half, the struggles continued for Smith, who fumbled the ball after getting sacked for an 11-yard loss. South Carolina scored on the first play from scrimmage following the turnover. Smith was sacked a season-high four times.
Bowden took several snaps in an effort to relieve Smith throughout the contest and had a hand in Kentucky’s lone scoring drive with a 26-yard run in the fourth frame.
“I’m a fighter,” Bowden said. “I’m just fighting for my team. … if that’s what I’ve got to do, then that’s what I am going to do.”
Looking back, Stoops said the Wildcats “maybe should have went to Lynn earlier.”
“I know everybody is going to ask that,” Stoops said. “I don’t know, it was worth a shot because we certainly did struggle to move the football. Sawyer has to heal up and hopefully, he will. We’ve got to some things checked on him during this bye (week).”
The bad start to open the second half ended any hopes of a comeback as Kentucky’s losing streak increased to three games. Now Kentucky has two weeks to regroup for the second half of the season.
“The bye is coming at a good time for us,” Stoops said. “We’re beat up pretty good. We need to hit the reset button and get some guys healthy, get some of these mistakes that we’re making corrected. There are a lot of things we can get fixed and will.”
Next game: Arkansas at Kentucky, Oct. 12. TV/Radio: TBA, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.