Down 21-0 a minute into the second quarter. Being outgained 2,136 yards to 10 midway through the first half (*all yardage figures approximate). On the road against a conference opponent, the 13th ranked team in the country and against a coach that has owned the Kentucky wherever he roams the sidelines. In short, the Cats had every reason to throw up their hands and give up and revert back to the same old Cats that have disappointed throughout the years.
Except, a funny thing happened in Columbia, SC at Williams-Brice Stadium. Clearly, these aren’t your father’s Wildcats.
I agree with Head Coach Mark Stoops when, after the game, he said that UK doesn’t do moral victories. Losses still hurt, whether by 1 or 100, but clearly there’s something brewing over at the Nutter Fieldhouse. The Cats had their back against the wall on Saturday night, but they turned it around and gave the Big Blue Faithful something that has been sorely missing from the Football Cats for the last few years: hope.
If the Cats can bottle up the confidence and poise they played with for the last 2 and half quarters against South Carolina, they’re going to find some wins out there. Maybe not against next week’s opponent, the top ranked defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, but there are wins out there to be had if the Cats can replicate and duplicate their effort tonight. The coaching staff made sound adjustments to get Kentucky back in it, closing the margin to 6 points, at 27-21, when Jalen Whitlow hit Ryan Timmons on a 14 yard TD pass with 11:50 left in the game. And when Whitlow scored on a 1 yard QB sneak with just at 4 minutes remaining in the game, the Cats were once again within one score at 35-28. Ultimately, that would be the final score, but the Cats weren’t out of opportunities. The Cats had the Gamecocks in a 3rd and short yardage situation and the coaches called the perfect defense. The UK defense was ready to stop South Carolina RB Mike Davis, but he was able to break the tackle and get the first down which allowed the Gamecocks to run out the clock.
While it goes without saying that the football Cats have broken the collective heart of the Big Blue Nation for years, it’s obvious that Coach Stoops and company are making progress. The Cats had 19 first downs against South Carolina. And after going 1 for their last 67 on third downs (*figures approximate), Kentucky was 5-11 on third down and 2-2 on fourth. Jalen Whitlow was finally able to find his rhythm, finishing 17/24 passing for 178 yards and two TDs while rushing 17 times for 69 yards and another TD. With freshman RB Jojo getting better by the game (12 rushes for 40 yards), the offense is going to be able to take some pressure off the defense by staying on the field and scoring some points.
The progress is evident. There’s a change coming. And, again, there are no moral victories. The Cats did, however, show how far they’ve come in such a short time. All the coaches have to point to is how well the Cats finished the South Carolina game as proof. These young Wildcats are growing up and even if the process is painful at times, in the end, it will be worth it.