Kentucky was undaunted entering “The Swamp” a year ago, taking longtime nemesis Florida to three overtimes before eventually succumbing to the Gators, 36-30, in a game that featured a controversial call that may have cost the Cats a chance to notch the first road victory of the Stoops era.
True freshman receiver Garrett Johnson had a breakout performance in that game, catching six passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow newcomer Stanley "Boom" Williams added a highlight-reel 25-yard catch and run for a touchdown in overtime. Redshirt freshman kicker Austin MacGinnis booted a 51-yard field goal.
Asked Thursday if his current freshmen have some of the same fearless characteristics, Stoops said, “I hope so. The thing we talked about a year ago was embrace it. It’s a great environment, the place is going to be rocking, but embrace it and run to the roar and have fun with it.”
Kentucky (1-0) opened the season with a 40-33 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the newly-renovated Commonwealth Stadium, but Stoops’ teams are 0-10 away from home entering his third year as a head coach. Kentucky hasn’t won on the road in the SEC since knocking off Georgia 34-27 in 2009, a fact that he wanted to make the Cats aware of early this week as they began preparation for South Carolina.
For a program that hopes to continue taking steps in the right direction, Stoops noted, getting on a plane ride home with a victory should be the next milestone.
“It’s very important,” the UK boss said. “That has been well documented, our struggles on the road against SEC opponents. This is going to be another great challenge. A great opportunity for us… We have to go down there with a great mindset and try to get a victory in a very hostile environment.”
“Oh, he made us well-aware of that,” UK sophomore running back Boom Williams said of the SEC road skid. “You can’t hide from it, you have to go out and change it.”
“It’s been too long,” UK senior linebacker Josh Forrest said flatly. He should know better than anyone on the roster. The Paducah native has been in the program since 2011 and has yet to see his team return from a road game with a win in tow.
Kentucky was competitive in Stoops’ last venture into Williams Brice Stadium. the 80,000-seat home of the Gamecocks where rooster crows and electronic dance music oddly blare harmoniously amidst some of the SEC’s most passionate fans. The Cats rallied with 21 points in the fourth quarter, but fell 35-28 at Columbia in 2013.
South Carolina (1-0) opened its season with a 17-13 win over North Carolina last Thursday in Charlotte. The Gamecocks are 22-3 in their last 25 home games, although they did drop their home opener last season, 52-28, to Texas A&M. Missouri and Tennessee also found ways to leave Columbia with victories last season.
Asked what are some of the characteristics of good road teams he has been associated with in the past, Stoops said: “You have to be a complete football team on the road, and a lot of times you have to protect the football. It is a mentality, a toughness that you have to have to go on the road and be disciplined to come out of there with a victory.”