COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is tired of getting overlooked in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats took big strides to ending that perception against South Carolina on Saturday night.
Kentucky won its fourth straight over South Carolina, overcoming the Gamecocks’ quick start to take control with two touchdowns from Benny Snell Jr. and several key defensive stops for its first 3-0 start since 2010.
“Quite honestly, we’re tired of it,” Stoops said of Kentucky’s perceived status as a second-tier, SEC program. “What, like we didn’t get better? We’re not a better football team? Whatever, we’re better.”
Kentucky (3-0, 1-0 SEC) certainly showed that much of this one. The Wildcats dug themselves a quick hole with Deebo Samuel’s 68-yard touchdown catch on the game’s first play, then threw an interception and fumbled on their first two possessions.
But Kentucky’s defense kept the Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1) out of the end zone both times as its run game got cranked up. Snell capped two, long first-half drives with touchdown runs to take control for good.
“It seems like everybody has us being underdogs and that just gives us extra motivation,” he said. “Coming out here, playing in big games, playing in big environments, we want to do well.”
Two years ago, Kentucky snapped a 22-game SEC road losing streak at South Carolina. This time, the Wildcats left no doubt about who was the better team.
Stoops was proud of his players for absorbing South Carolina’s start and punching back. “Everybody wants to panic because you got to look pretty all the time,” he said. “Winning is what matters.”
Snell and offense took over, finishing a 13-play series with a 5-yard TD and an 11-play series with a 1-yard score. Kentucky made the critical plays when it needed. Facing fourth-and-goal from the Wildcats 1 in the fourth quarter, Gamecock tailback Rico Dowdle was stopped cold by linebacker Jamar Watson and cornerback Derrick Baity.
“This says we’ve got a little bit of dog in us, I guess,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to do well on this team. We know what we can do.”
Then when the Gamecocks closed it to 20-13 on OrTre Smith’s 9-yard touchdown grab with 6:26 left, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson scrambled on third down for a 54-yard run that led to Austin MacGinnis’ third field goal with two minutes left that sealed the win.
Snell finished with 102 yards on 32 carries.
Samuel had five catches for 122 yards and his sixth touchdown of the season. But he left the game in the third quarter with a broken leg and Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said he’ll miss the rest of the season.
“He’s an outstanding teammate and an outstanding friend,” Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley said. “He’ll be hard to replace.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats could be for real in an SEC East without any true powers. They took South Carolina’s opening punch and then won every big moment the rest of the way.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were poised for a Top 25 breakthrough with a victory. Instead, after next week’s contest with Louisiana Tech, they’ll face a difficult stretch of league games including contests at Texas A&M and Tennessee.
THIRD DOWN SUCCESS
Kentucky converted eight of its first 10 third downs to ground down the Gamecocks. The Wildcats finished 9 of 16 when faced with third down. “Couldn’t get off the field, couldn’t get the offense on the field,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said.
CAPTAIN SNUB: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said South Carolina’s captains would not shake his players’ hands when they went out for the opening coin toss. That, Stoops said, fired up his players not to let this one go.
“That gave us more motivation which I guess was pretty stupid on their part,” Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson said.
Kentucky played without starting linebacker Jordan Jones, who was out with a banged up shoulder.
Kentucky returns home to face Florida on Saturday.
South Carolina takes on Louisiana Tech, which is led by former Gamecocks offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, on Saturday.