Vaught's Views: Kentucky's first half was fun while it lasted, but the bottom line's the same
Victoria Graffemail@example.com Kentucky coach Joker Phillips after a successful goal-line stand by the Wildcats in the first quarter Saturday. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw was stopped twice at the 1-yard line by the Wildcats, who held the Gamecocks to seven points in the first half of their 38-17 loss. (Victoria Graff / September 30, 2012)
Kentucky’s defensive line shut down No. 6 South Carolina’s offense and held the Gamecocks to 106 total yards in the first half. Even with starting quarterback Maxwell Smith knocked out with an ankle injury, true freshman Jalen Whitlow did enough right to help produce 17 points and give the Wildcats a stunning 17-7 halftime lead.
The Wildcats stopped South Carolina inches from the goal line on fourth down. Daron Blaylock blocked a punt to set up a score. Daryl Collins caught a deflected pass to keep a scoring drive alive. The defense forced three three-and-outs.
Still, reality set in the second half, when Spurrier seemed to remember he had one of the nation’s best runners, Marcus Lattimore, on his team. After giving him just five carries the first half, he got 18 carries for 108 yards and two scores to lead the Gamecocks to a 38-17 victory at Commonwealth Stadium.
Ironically, when Kentucky upset South Carolina here two years ago, the Gamecocks had a big halftime lead, Lattimore got hurt early in period three and the Wildcats came back to beat Spurrier for the first time ever.
“The second half they were a little bit more patient and stuck with the running game and were able to get 200 yards rushing (for the game),” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “We couldn’t get them stopped. We couldn’t get anything going offensively to match the scores they had.
“We made plays early in the game. Now we have to do a better job finishing. We didn’t finish the end of the first half very well offensively and didn’t finish the second half.”
Perhaps if Kentucky had ended the first half a bit better the outcome might have been different.
Leading 17-7, the Wildcats got a huge break when a fourth-down snap sailed over quarterback Connor Shaw’s head when South Carolina was gambling in its own territory, and the Cats got possession at the 10-yard line with 56 seconds left.
A running play gained 3 yards before Kentucky had to burn its final timeout and wasted valuable time. Next came an incomplete pass. On third down, Whitlow got sacked and fumbled. Receiver Demarco Robinson recovered and got to the 1-yard line, but time ran out before UK could run a play.
“We missed a huge opportunity. No doubt about that,” Phillips said. “We had the field-goal team ready to go on the field. We did not anticipate fumbling. That was a huge momentum swing.”
The big boo-boo came on second down, when the Wildcats didn’t get the play call conveyed properly.
“Things that happened (on second down) can’t happen,” Phillips said. “If I had known that, I would have called timeout with 40 or 35 seconds on the play clock. Things that happened on second down cannot happen and should not happen.”
A field goal would have made it 20-7 and given Kentucky even more momentum. A touchdown would have made it 24-7, and who knows what could have happened, since the Cats got the ball to start the second half.
Instead, South Carolina’s offensive and defensive lines dominated the second half. Kentucky had just 70 total yards after halftime, and the Gamecocks ran for 174 yards.
“They just lined up and we couldn’t stop them. That’s been our biggest problem all year,” defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. “We just could not get them stopped.”
Safety Martavius Neloms, who had nine tackles, including seven solo stops, thought this was going to be a magical night for Kentucky just as it was in 2010 when the Cats stunned South Carolina.
“We came out and were playing great on both sides of the ball,” he said. “The first half it definitely felt like 2010. But we’ve just got to do more to win. We showed the kind of team we can be in the first half, but you can’t quit playing then.”
For the optimist, Kentucky did continue to get solid play from freshmen. Cornerback Cody Quinn made his second start — “I thought he did a good job again,” Minter said — and backup safety Daron Blaylock had the punt block. On offense, wide receiver A.J. Legree made his first two catches.
Then there was Whitlow, who turned many heads in preseason camp with his play and did not lose his poise despite playing against perhaps the Southeastern Conference’s best defensive front. He was sacked seven times, threw two interceptions and had one fumble, but he showed toughness, a nice throwing arm and the ability to scramble at times.
“We had a lot of young guys making plays. Legree was a guy that I said we have to get ball in his hands. He plays so fast for us. He had not caught a pass until last week but you can see how fast he plays,” Phillips said. “He is a really tough guy. Physical wide receiver.”
But he may have also tweaked his ankle on the game’s final play. Phillips said he did not mention it to the trainer, but he was limping slightly after the game.
Phillips said X-rays on Smith’s ankle were negative, but both quarterbacks will be evaluated again today to determine the exact extent of any problems.
If Smith is out for a significant amount of time, Phillips said he might have to reconsider his plan to redshirt freshman Patrick Towles.
“We won’t do that unless Max is out for a while and won’t do it unless we are going to play him. At this point there is no use taking it off if he won’t play a significant amount,” Phillips said.
However, at this point, the Cats won’t be able to discount anything. They are now 1-4. The halftime lead was nice. Playing freshmen was nice. But the bottom line is that they still lost.
“Nobody feels good when you lose,” defensive lineman Tristian Johnson said. “Spin it any way you want, but we want to win and want to do whatever it takes to win. We did that for a half tonight, but that’s just not good enough.”