The Wildcats raced to a 24-7 halftime lead over South Carolina and held off a furious rally by the Gamecocks for a 26-22 victory on Saturday night in Columbia, marking UK's first road win under third-year head coach Mark Stoops, its first SEC road win since 2009 and its first win at Williams Brice Stadium since 1999.
A 22-game road losing streak was buried as the Cats hopped on that long-awaited celebratory plane ride back to the Bluegrass.
"It means we've taken another step," Stoops said. "We have a long way to go to where we want to be, but I really feel good about the direction we're going. I'm really proud of this team."
"It's awesome. It's what we've been working all summer for," said UK junior quarterback Patrick Towles, who overcame an interception on the first series of the game to complete 21 of 29 passes for 192 yards. He also rushed for a 1-yard touchdown in the first half.
Kentucky (2-0) saw the offense carry the load in the first half, racking up 307 total yards to stun the crowd of 82,178.
South Carolina (1-1) made adjustments and clamped down on the Cats in the second half, but the UK defense rose up for three red-zone stops for field goals and forced a fumble on a Gamecock 2-point converson which was run back 98 yards by redshirt freshman linebacker Denzil Ware for his team's only points of the half.
Freshman cornerback Chris Westry then came up with an interception of South Carolina's Perry Orth at the UK 37-yard line with 4:36 remaining to thwart yet another scoring threat.
From there, the Cats leaned on sophomore running back Boom Williams, who iced the victory with runs of 8, 3 and 25 yards to expend the clock. He finished with 107 yards on 14 carries, his third straight 100-yard rushing effort dating back to last season.
In this AllWildcats Rapid Recap feature, we break down the highlights of UK's big win...
WHAT WE LIKED:
Kentucky went into one of the toughest venues in the SEC with 15 true or redshirt freshmen on the two-deep depth chart and looked completely unfazed by the setting. The Cats appeared to stun South Carolina with their aggressiveness out of the "Pistol" formation, which produced 156 rushing yards by halftime. When things got rocky in the second half, the defense picked up th slack and delivered one of the best clutch performances in recent UK memory. Josh Forrest and A.J. Stamps had pass break-ups in the end zone to force the Gamecocks to settle for field goals, and J.D. Harmon had a huge stuff of South Carolina star Pharoh Cooper on another third-and-goal play that resulted in a field goal instead of a touchdown. Westry, meanwhile, overcome a rough night that included getting beat a couple of times and committing a key defensive holding penalty to record his first career interception when it mattered most.
There were many, but the game was still very much in doubt after Westry's interception. You got the feeling the Cats needed one more first down and a new set of downs to put the game away. Facing 3rd-and-6 with around 3 minutes remaining, Towles executed a clutch quarterback keeper call for 11 yards to sap whatever hope the Gamecocks still possessed. It was a timely -- and gutsy -- play call by first-year UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
Are there enough to go around? The entire UK defense earned one tonight, saving the Cats in the second half when the offense sputtered. Senior linebacker Khalid Henderson had a team-high 10 tackles and was in on the 2-point conversion stuff with Forrest, C.J. Johnson and Blake McClain. It appeared that Henderson may have punched the ball out of Cooper's hands and into those of Ware. The play eliminated the possibilty of South Carolina winning with another field goal.
STAT OF THE DAY:
After total plays and time of possession were a major issue for UK in its opener, the Cats ran 67 snaps to 61 for South Carolina and won the time of possession battle 31:48 to 28:12.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- 0 - Punts by Kentucky in the first half and punts by South Carolina in the second half.
- 2 - Third-down conversions by the Gamecocks on 10 attempts.
- 7.6 - Average yards per carry by UK's Williams.
- 18 - Consecutive red-zone conversions by the UK offense dating back to last season.
- 1998 - The last time UK returned a 2-point conversion for a score, coming via Eric Kelly in a game at LSU.
- 57:52 - Time UK played turnover-free after Towles' interception on the first series.
“Too many field goals, not enough touchdowns.” -- South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
The Cats return home to face Florida at Commonwealth Stadium next weekend. UK will be seeking to end a 28-game losing skid against the Gators, the longest in SEC history. Florida (2-0) beat East Carolina 31-24 on Saturday at "The Swamp."