LEXINGTON, Ky. — A sixth-ranked South Carolina team that’s rolling would seem to have all kinds of advantages tonight against reeling Kentucky.
The Gamecocks (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) have outscored their last three opponents 128-26 and have won seven of eight dating back to last season. They appear poised to again defeat the Wildcats, especially after routing Kentucky 54-3 last fall at home.
None of that fazes Kentucky (1-3, 0-1).
The Wildcats believe the return of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith from a separated shoulder provides the offense they need to end a two-game losing streak and avenge that blowout.
Kentucky has done it before. The Wildcats upset the Gamecocks 31-28 in Lexington two years ago. But South Carolina hasn’t forgotten that either and is not looking past Kentucky.
“We emphasize with the young guys that it is an SEC road game,” Gamecocks senior fullback Qua Gilchrist said. “It’s not about Kentucky, it’s the SEC on the road. So every opponent is going to be tough on us.”
South Carolina’s toughest challenge was its season opener at Vanderbilt. The Commodores outgained the Gamecocks 276-272 in that 17-13 victory and held South Carolina to just 67 passing yards.
The Gamecocks have taken flight in three games since, racking up 971 yards. Connor Shaw was nearly perfect in last week’s 31-10 home victory against Missouri. After missing on his first pass, the junior quarterback completed his final 20 attempts to set a school record, finishing with 249 yards and two touchdowns.
What’s even more impressive, he did it with a hairline fracture in his right throwing shoulder. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said this week that Shaw – needing three consecutive completions to tie Tennessee’s Tee Martin for the SEC record – was fine and didn’t require extra padding or a brace.
Besides having a good arm, Shaw is an excellent runner and is another weapon in South Carolina’s potent ground game. He rushed for 41 yards last week and had an 80-yard run nullified by a penalty.
It’s a “shame that one was called back last week,” Spurrier said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a quarterback go 80 yards in my coaching career. That’s the first time ever, I’m pretty sure.”
Still, the Wildcats say their young defense is prepared for the dual threat QB.
“We’ve just got to know our coverages, because they like to run side-to-side and do different things in zone reads,” said Wildcats freshman Cody Quinn, who will make his second consecutive start at cornerback. “I think we can eliminate those” plays.
Asked if Shaw is the most accurate passer he has seen after last week, Quinn added, “with their scheme, I think he’s good at what they do.”
The Wildcats can make the same claim about Smith.
What was initially announced as a bruised right throwing shoulder turned out to be a separation, Smith revealed this week. His status was so tentative on Monday that Kentucky coach Joker Phillips hinted that freshman Jalen Whitlow might start in Smith’s place.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, Smith threw on Tuesday and Thursday and said he’s ready to return. Kentucky needs him back to direct its no-huddle offense, especially after Whitlow and backup Morgan Newton were a combined 8 of 28 for 60 yards and three interceptions in a 38-0 loss at Florida.
Smith returns to face a pass rush featuring Jadeveon Clowney (4.5 sacks) and Devin Taylor, just part of the Gamecocks’ “rabbit package” that features four defensive ends. South Carolina ranks second in the SEC with 15 sacks.
“Their defensive front is far and away the best we’ll see this year,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. “Not only are they fast, they’re tall. The shortest one is 6-5” Chaz Sutton.
“When you play a front like this, it’s even more of a challenge,” Sanders said. “You try to make the defensive line run sideline to sideline a little bit. We can’t just drop back and leave him in the same spot all the time. If we do that, he’d probably get killed.”
Both teams don’t want recent history to repeat itself.
South Carolina’s blew a 28-10 second-half lead two years ago at Commonwealth Stadium. With Georgia up next week, South Carolina would like another SEC victory. Kentucky’s struggles seem tailor-made to exploit, though the Gamecocks say they aren’t overconfident.
“We know that upsets happen,” Spurrier said, “and we know why they happen, usually when a team is not ready to play, simple as that.”
Kentucky meanwhile insists the Florida loss is old news and wants to erase the bad taste from its last meeting against South Carolina.
“It’s definitely a great attitude going into this game,” Wildcats safety Mikie Benton said. “With last week, you just kind of leave it there. We’re back in front of our home crowd and will try to do our best to put on a good show for them.”