- Why? Mostly because even in the midst of Florida and Tennessee setting back the coaching profession decades, even while Clemson was putting Louisville in the figure four, and even when Texas was doing its best imitation of a real, grown-boy football team, there was this...noise. A noise of mute horror, of slow crushing, the noise something trapped in a steamer trunk thrown into the bottom of an abandoned coal mine might make.
- That noise was South Carolina. Appropriately, the team with the abandoned mineshaft was Kentucky.
- South Carolina should have known it was losing this game when it leaped out to a 6-0 lead after a quick TD on their first drive, but then missed the extra point. There were other clues, though, that this was going to be a slog for both teams. Both teams combined for three turnovers in the first four minutes of the game, which is a bad sign. Neither team could get points of any of them—especially bad for South Carolina, since they got two of them off Kentucky, and converted them into a missed field goal and interception. Those are non-scoring plays. This game was already telling you it was going to be horrible, South Carolina. It was honest about it, and you should appreciate that.
- A horrible, slogging state of play favored Kentucky, a team that prefers to work the clock on every play, minimize possessions, and let steady running by Benny Snell and judicious passing by Stephen Johnson control tempo. It’s kind of cool, after watching a lot of teams attempt to do things they cannot do, to see a team with no ambitions whatsoever. Kentucky knows what it is, and will play accordingly.
- For instance: Both teams had around 350 yards of offense, but Kentucky wrung 20 first downs off 353 yards offense, while South Carolina only had 14 first downs off 358 yards of offense. Translated: For what it got, the Wildcats got a maximum amount of clock-burning done. Kentucky is paying off the mortgage of a game at the bare minimum, and with no additional payments forward on the interest. Against the right opponent that’s a pretty good strategy, and against South Carolina it’s a way to break every Gamecock fan watching this, because it’s just a first down, it didn’t even look that impressive.
- Again, that’s a form of being extremely smart. Mark Stoops can’t out-personnel anyone in the SEC, but he can fit relatively modest pieces into a very mean, well-designed thing IF that thing only really wants to run the ball for steady gains, complete timely third down passes that don’t get much farther than the sticks, and occasionally run his QB when necessary. They’re Michigan State-ish in the best possible sense of the word, not in the 2016-17 sense: You might outsprint them, but you’ll never beat them in a contest of holding breath to see who passes out first.
- Long stretches of this game are “punts and twiddling.” Very active and purposeful piddling, yes, but still piddling.
- And defensively Kentucky really didn’t care whether Jake Bentley had a huge day or not, since the wager they made was doubling down on stopping the run, and daring South Carolina to convert in the red zone through the air. Bentley does some astonishingly polished things in this game, he really does, especially for just a second year starter. At one point he completes sixteen straight passes, and makes two and three read progressions with ease. He finished with 304 yards passing and two TDs, and was the main reason South Carolina was in this game late.
- He also got zero run support, threw two picks, and generally had trouble extending drives to keep the Gamecocks from regaining control of the game. This game turned into a grappling match early. Kentucky relished that, South Carolina did and could not, and that’s pretty much the entire story here, because one team is very much built for that kind of mudrolling, and the other is South Carolina, who had 54 rushing yards on the night and at one point had to rely on their non-rushing QB for a crucial redzone scramble on 3rd down. (He did not make it, and was blasted out of bounds by safety Mike Edwards two feet shy of the goal line.)
- Kentucky’s Mike Edwards is a deeply cool safety, and does a lot of bouncing around and gassing people up. He’s also good at his job, but it’s also important as a safety to a.) pick up the occasional personal foul just to keep team morale high, and b.) to serve as team spirit captain. Kentucky could have a really superb defense this year, and Mike Edwards celebrating every big play like his teammate just won the lottery is easily a solid 6% of total defensive power for Kentucky.
- Anyway, all that offensive imbalance and an atrocious night for the Gamecocks’ kicker led to six possessions in the redzone with zero points for South Carolina. Ask Tennessee: You lose when you do not produce at all in the red zone, and you lose in the manner that makes your fans drop their jaws in mute horror as a silent landslide of futility swamps everything you hoped to do in a game. Nobody was wrong about the aggressive silence of the South Carolina crowd. It’s morgue-like for a good 75% of this game, and that’s how you know Kentucky’s existential dread gameplan was working.
- There’s actually very little to criticize South Carolina for here, though aggressively chasing a 54 yard field goal attempt just before the half rather than trying something more aggressive really is just another line on the eye chart reading "DISASTER" here. Kentucky just mashed them out, and they couldn’t do much to respond, and that’s the blueprint for beating South Carolina in 2017. Let Bentley do what he wants, stop the run, and make one player on the offense do way, way too much.
- Future programming note: So this might be real viable trouble for Florida, a team who will allow rushing yards (see: John Kelly getting good yardage against the Gator defense in the Tennessee game) and who, unlike South Carolina, is having real production problems at quarterback.
- VERDICT: This was as panic-inducing as advertised, at least from South Carolina’s perspective. For Kentucky it was a delight. This is where you remember that Jurassic Park is a thrilling story of survival and science gone wrong for humans, and for dinosaurs is a heartwarming comeback story with an uplifting ending. South Carolina’s hopes might be fried for the year. Kentucky’s are alive, or at least undead, because on their best day fighting this team will be like tussling with a golem.
- Don’t ever do a blackout night. EVER.
NOTES ON KENTUCKY/SOUTH CAROLINA
HEY Y’ALL IT WAS JUST AS BAD AND GOOD AS YOU SAID