By Charles D. Smith
The garnet and black-clad South Carolina contingent rolled into Lexington for the 7:10 PM kickoff last Saturday to see the Cocks take on the Cats. Several thousand made the trip from the Palmetto state to see their sixth-ranked team continue a hoped-for march to the SEC championship game. Led by the ole ball coach, Steve Spurrier, the Gamecocks have improved each week during the first part of the season. Fans and players alike came to the Bluegrass happy, fat, and sassy; a prohibitive 21 point favorite. Strolling through the parking lots prior to the game one noticed many great smells: pork bar-b-que, brats, hamburgers and lots of other goodies. There was not, however, the faintest scent of an upset in the air prior to kickoff.
The De-Occupy Commonwealth Stadium contingent was out (actually not out), in full force, as thousands stayed away. UK President Dr. Eli Capiluto’s ban of alcohol, music and DJs in the grassy bowl area adjacent to Bluegrass Community and Technical College on Cooper Drive (the spot preferred by many students for tailgating) earned him the social media nickname of Dr. Buzzkill, and as a way of protesting, many students stayed away from the game as well. The announced attendance of just less than 50,000 seemed extremely generous, and to those that are conspiracy-minded, possibly devious.
After holding USC to a three and out on the opening drive, UK took over on their 18 yard line. On the second play, Max Smith was sacked, suffered an ankle injury, and to add insult to that injury, was called for intentional grounding. The air went out of Commonwealth Stadium, and at that point no one gave Kentucky a chance. With Smith out, freshman Jalen Whitlow entered the game and was promptly sacked as well.
Behind Conner Shaw and Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina easily moved the ball down the field and the beginning of the rout seemed to be eminent. But the much-maligned Big Blue defense made an unexpected goal line stand and kept the Gamecocks out of the end zone on 4th and inches. The Cats took over with an untested freshman quarterback, a lame duck coach, a sparse (by SEC standards) crowd in the stands, and were given the task of moving the ball against one of the best and most athletic defenses in college football. When Whitlow scrambled from near the goal with some nifty moves to get UK a first down, the loyal fans that had turned out really got into the game. On that very impressive drive UK went 94 yards in 16 plays, in the end getting a field goal. Kentucky used that momentum to outplay South Carolina in the first half. The scent of an upset was definitely noticeable at half time as UK led 17-7.
Since football is not a fairy tale, the second half maybe should have been foreseen; Lattimore and the Gamecocks totally dominated UK, and the Carolina defense held the Wildcats to only four first downs in the second half. They outscored Kentucky 31-0 after the break on the way to a 38-17 win. South Carolina left town with an expected, but harder than anticipated victory.
Joker Phillips is left with yet another decision about quarterback, and once again, is preaching patience to an impatient Big Blue Nation. It would seem Kentucky would need to win at least four of their last seven games to save Joker’s job. The question is: Can a young, rapidly improving football team gain the confidence and stay healthy enough to do so? The soap opera that is the 2012 UK football season plays on. Stay tuned.