Mark Stoops jogs to the locker room, following UK's win over South Carolina (Photos by Brandon Turner)

Mark Stoops jogs to the locker room, following UK’s win over South Carolina (Photos by Brandon Turner)

College football games often are compared to heavyweight prize fights, the two combatants standing toe-to-toe, trading tackles and touchdowns as though they were haymakers delivered all the way from last Thursday, with a title belt on the line.

This one felt more like a matchup between a couple of local welterweights, staged in a smokey backroom.  And there may have been no world championship belt on the line when Kentucky and South Carolina squared off in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday night, but it felt like a battle where the last man standing would have pork chop money for another week.  Both teams were hungry to win.

Wildcats 17, Gamecocks 10.  It’s Kentucky that will hold its head a little higher this week.  Ahead lies a trip to Alabama where, barring a shocker, the Cats will return 2-3.  But that’s not nearly as ugly as 1-4, which was a distinct possibility if they didn’t protect their home ersatz turf.

They did it with just enough offense and the most clutch (clutchest?) defensive performance  in the Mark Stoops Era, a period that has yet to know a bowl bid but could still make it happen this year.

Stephen Johnson ran tothe one-yard lne late in the game, setting up UK's game-winning TD

Stephen Johnson ran tothe one-yard lne late in the game, setting up UK’s game-winning TD

A Kentucky team that gave up 35 points in the first half last week to New Mexico State hooked a South Carolina team that has had trouble scoring points all year, one that was looking to get well against a UK defense that had been surrendering yardage and points by the wheelbarrow.

Instead, Kentucky limited the Gamecocks to only a touchdown in the first half, a field goal in the second and fewer than 300 yards.

Some of the credit goes to Wesley Woodyard, who made nary a tackle.  But there’s no telling how many the former UK linebacker inspired with a last-second pep talk on the Wildcat sideline, just before kickoff.

“He told us to play our hearts out and have fun,” said defensive end Denzil Ware, “to go out there and play our best.”

Ware admitted that he didn’t know who this guy in the middle of the UK huddle wa

Wildcat defenders, including nose guard Matt Elam, converged on SC quartrback Brandon McIlwain

Wildcat defenders, including nose guard Matt Elam, converged on SC quartrback Brandon McIlwain

s until after the speech. But when informed of the identity of the former All-SEC linebacker, who was inducted this weekend into the UK athletic Hall of Fame and now is playing on Sundays, the words from Woodyard sank in. “That’s Wesley Woodyard?” Ware admitted to gushing. “He’s a Hall of Famer!”

Stoops actually had been hoping Woodyard could deliver a pre-game speech in the locker room, but couldn’t locate him.  Once he learned that the Tennessee Titans linebacker had addressed the troops, he relaxed and let the message take hold.  “I hoped he was around there getting them jacked up,” Stoops said, “because I wanted him to be there.”

Woodyard came through just in time and then the Wildcats went out and did the same.  The defense found its way to the sideline after third down 10 of 13 times, giving way to an offense under the direction, for the first time as a starter, of Stephen Johnson.

In just his fourth game as a Wildcat, the junior college transfer was forced to step in for the injured Drew Barker, a scenario so unlikely that one of Johnson’s roommates, a non-football player who doesn’t own a TV (or apparently pay much attention to social media) didn’t believe him when Johnson informed him that he’d be taking the first snap against the Gamecocks.

His passing will never make anyone forget Tim Couch and 34 times he handed the ball off to Boom Williams, Benny Snell or Jojo Kemp.  But it was Johnson’s gritty run on a busted play that carried to the SC 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, leading to Kentucky’s go-ahead touchdown one play later. Johnson’s scramble was an overhand right hand to South Carolina’s chin and the scoring play, a one-yard plunge by Snell, left the Gamecocks wobbly.

The UK defense forced a standing eight-count two possessions later, Carolina needing 17 yards on fourth down, only to have Ware sack quarterback Brandon McIlwain for a loss of 19.  The Cats took over and started grinding again on the ground, forcing USC to use its last two timeouts before Kentucky managed, by inches, to move the chains one last time on a gritty fourth down play. That was the knockout punch.

Time for the Victory Formation. Mark Stoops could exhale.  “It’s not an easy business,” he said. “The heat’s always on, so it comes with the territory.”

It’ll be hot in Tuscaloosa, where the reigning heavyweight champ will invite the visitors to step into the ring next week.  But thanks to Saturday’s victory, the Wildcats, win or lose, can still keep their sights set on a bowl bid – instead of a one-way ticket back to Palookaville.

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