(COLUMBIA, SC) – There was a handshake at midfield, all right, prior to the Kentucky-South Carolina game Saturday night. These are the parties from each sideline that did the grip-&-grin: Me, and Langston Moore, the ex-Gamecock now working as my radio sidelines counterpart on the SC network.
Otherwise, there was no flesh pressed. As for why…
Moore has told the Charleston Post and Courier that the South Carolina players refused to extend their hands because of chirping by the UK players. That’s not the way I saw it.
Yes, the Kentucky players were vocal but, from what I could tell amid the noise and music, they weren’t directing their energy at the SC guys as they approached midfield. And when the Wildcat players tried to initiate handshakes, the Gamecocks – from where I stood – never budged, hands at their sides. Deebo Samuel was the SC player closest to me; his expression seemed to convey this: “Are you kidding me? No way.”
I don’t know Deebo (I don’t know Bo, either) so that might be his Resting Football Face. But my instantaneous reaction was, This is a psychological ploy by the South Carolina players, choreographed to let the Kentucky players know that the next 60 minutes were not going to be a pleasant Punt, Pass and Kick festival – that the Gamecocks were determined to protect their home turf and, in doing so, snap their three-game losing skid to Kentucky.
Here’s the thing – it worked. The UK players became emotional; they got chesty with the SC guys, forcing referee Marc Curles to plow into the middle of it all (amid eight guys all a LOT bigger than he is) and push players apart, pleading that they “Just play football! Just play football!”
I remember wondering if an actual brawl was going to break out, right there on the 50-yard-line. I also recall being curious as to why umpire Brent Sowell (on hand to bear witness to the coin toss and write down who wins it) didn’t provide Curles with more backup, but that’s between them.
Curles managed to restore order. After the toss, I recall Nick Haynes, the UK captain nearest me, the one who spoke for the Wildcats on the coin flip, taking a couple of steps toward Samuel. I was behind him, so I don’t know if Haynes extended his hand again or just wanted to leave the SC speedster with a parting verbal shot.
But I did see Samuel look down at his own feet, which were behind a crease in the painted logo on the field. Then he looked back up at Haynes, as if to indicate that here was the line, if you’d like to cross it. Just my impression.
We’ll never know if the midfield mess had an effect on the Wildcats, once the game began. We do know the start couldn’t have been much worse for Kentucky, Samuel racing 68 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage. And then Kentucky provided the Gamecocks with a pair of scoring opportunities, one thanks to an interception thrown by Stephen Johnson, the other, after a snap went awry as freshman Lynn Bowden attempted to operate out of the Wildcat formation.
But South Carolina on this night became the Team That Couldn’t Kick Straight, two different SC kickers missing an extra point and three field goals, leaving 10 points on the field in a game they would lose, wouldn’t you know, 23-13.
Once again, the Kentucky offense did just enough. Benny Snell rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson played pitch and catch with nine different UK receivers and then delivered the dagger not with his arm, but his feet, rushing for 54 yards and putting his team in a position to ice the game with another Austin MacGinnis field goal, his third of the game without a miss.
And all of this, without benefit of pre-game handshakes. I did enjoy mine and I can tell you this about Langston Moore, sidelines reporter for the Gamecock Network: Seems like a nice guy. Big smile. Firm grip.