COLUMBIA, South Carolina – For the Kentucky defense, the wake-up call came exactly 3:51 into Saturday night’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium. That’s when Tavien Feaster sliced into the UK end zone from three yards, out, capping a 11-play, 75-yard drive that opened the contest.
It was a wake-up call delivered, not by a velvet-toned hotel operator, but by more than a ton-and-a-half of snarling Gamecocks, determined to snap a five-game losing string.
And it worked. For the rest of the half, the Wildcat defense was able to blunt the SC offense and surrendered only a field goal.
Unfortunately, the alarm for the Kentucky offense appears to be set to half-past Terry Wilson, which is why the Cats didn’t score until the closing minutes, succeeding only in reducing the humiliation to a 24-7 final score.
“I hate to say it,” senior linebacker Boogie Watson was saying later in the Kentucky locker room, “but this defense, we always let that first blow motivate us. I know that’s hard to think about for a fan watching it… it kind of wakes us up.”
Kentucky had come in off back-to-back losses in the SEC. South Carolina had yet to beat an FBS team. This game might have looked like two hungry wolves, fighting over one chicken bone. Instead, one team dominated.
“We didn’t get off to the start we wanted, on either side of the ball,” Watson said. “They were more desperate than us. We allowed that to happen. That was the second week in a row that a team was more desperate than us. Going into this bye, we need to re-group and figure out our ‘why?’ “
Minutes before, he had just heard similar words from his head coach. The message from Mark Stoops to his team was short but, no doubt, anything but sweet.
“I just looked every guy in the eye,” Stoops told the media. “My message was brief. I don’t want to see any finger pointing. There’s no time to feel sorry (for ourselves).”
Stoops is a head coach who might be facing a tough choice. His quarterback is ailing. Sawyer Smith looks nothing like the QB who, after the Florida game, had the hot-take guys drooling over a Smith-vs.-Wilson debate. Now, it’s “Should Smith sit for either Lynn Bowden or Walker Wood?”
Stoops has a (bye) week before he has to square up to that decision.
“Sawyer is giving us everything he can,” Stoops said. “He’s banged up. That’s the bottom line. There are no excuses. Maybe we should have (gone) to Lynn earlier.”
Even though Bowden had made catches, run the jet sweep and returned kicks all night, he had fresher legs than Smith when he settled in at quarterback late in the game. Two plays after Chris Rodriguez ripped off a 44-yard run, Bowden raced through the Gamecocks for 26 more, part of a scoring drive that ended with Rodriguez bulling his way into the end zone from two yards out, helping Kentucky avoid the embarrassment of a shutout.
“We certainly did struggle moving the football,” Stoops said. “Sawyer has to heal up and hopefully he will.”
Arkansas is next up and in the heady days of July, this one looked like an automatic check mark in the win column. But that was well before Wilson went down, before Smith damaged his throwing wrist and before the Razorbacks pushed a good Texas A&M team to the limit.
It’s just the standard reminder that in the SEC, nothing comes easily.
“I still love this team,” Stoops said “These guys are going to fight. We’re in the midst of a tough stretch right now. We need the bye. We need to hit the reset button.”
For freshmen and sophomores who know only the joy of a 10-win season, this could be daunting. The elders who have been with Stoops for the past four or five years know the strife.
“We’ve been in worse situations before,” he said. “We’ll stick together and get better and find options. That’s all you can do.”
Watson is one of those graybeards, a fifth-year senior.
“We have to make sure we’re not divided as a team,” Watson said. “Two-and-three can seem like a bad start, which it is, but we have a lot more games left, winnable games on paper, and our goal is a bowl game. That’s the goal every year. It’s very possible. We have a lot of young guys on this team. We have to make sure they don’t fold over and give up.
“The last three years have been good — a lot of winning, a lot of success. Coming back to this is kind of humbling in a way. We need to get back on track and do what we can do.”
And maybe find a way to get that wake-up call BEFORE the game begins.