LEXINGTON - The Kentucky Wildcats may well have found another quarterback, but they lost another game in the process, falling, 38-17, to the No. 6-rated South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
True freshman Jalen Whitlow entered the game at quarterback for UK some two minutes into the game after sophomore starter Maxwell Smith went down with an ankle injury.
And for the better part of that first half, Whitlow wowed the home fans with his feet and his arm, leading the Wildcats to a shocking, 17-7, halftime lead.
But Coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks made adjustments at half, picked up the pressure defensively, and rattled Whitlow and the rest of the Kentucky offense to the tune of a 31-0 shellacking over the final two quarters.
The Gamecocks improved to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference, while Kentucky fell to 1-4 and 0-2.The numbers beneath the final score tell the story, as they usually do. Kentucky gained only 70 yards of total offense in the second half after piling up 173 yards over the first 30 minutes.
“We made plays early in the game,” UK coach Joker Phillips said. “Now we have to do a better job of finishing. We couldn’t get anything going in the second half.”
Whitlow was picked off two times in the second half, and was constantly running for his football life down the stretch thanks to an intense pass rush by South Carolina’s highly-touted defensive front and linebackers.
Whitlow, who a year ago at this time was leading Prattville, Ala., High to Alabama’s Class 6A state title, finished 12 of 23 Saturday, for 114 yards and two interceptions in his first college start.
Five Wildcats caught at least two passes apiece. Sophomore Demarco Robinson had three catches for 29 yards, and freshmen A.J. Legree and Daryl Collins had two receptions each, along with seniors La’Rod King and Gene McCaskill.
Junior Raymond Sanders led Kentucky on the ground with 59 yards rushing on 14 carries before leaving the game late with an unspecified leg injury.
South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw was 15 of 18 for 148 yards and two touchdowns, and junior running back Marcus Lattimore ran 23 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Kentucky fans are left to wonder how this may have all turned out had the Wildcats not blown a golden scoring opportunity at the end of the first half that could have put the Wildcats up 17 at the halftime break.
The opportunity for UK started when the Gamecocks went for it on 4th-and-1 at their own 34-yard-line, and USC center T.J. Johnson snapped the ball over the head of quarterback Connor Shaw. Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham fell on the ball on the South Carolina 10 with one minute left in the half and the Wildcats on top, 17-7.
On first down, UK’s Sanders was stopped for no gain. On second down Whitlow passed out of bounds to King. On third down Whitlow fumbled at the 12, and Robinson picked it up and ran towards the goal line with the Wildcats out of time outs.
Robinson made it to the South Carolina one, and the clock ran out as Whitlow tried to get the Wildcats set at the line of scrimmage.
“We had our field goal kicker ready to go out on the field,” Phillips said. “That was a huge momentum swing.”
The Wildcats had a chance to make up for that when they took the second-half kickoff at their own 13. But after one first down, the Gamecocks stuffed the Kentucky offense, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
South Carolina rallied within 17-14, marching 73 yards on the ensuing offensive series, getting the touchdown on a 30-yard pass from Shaw to wide receiver Damiere Byrd down the middle of the Kentucky defense.
By that point the USC defense was smelling blood in the water, so to speak, and the Kentucky offense went three and out on its next series.
The Gamecocks then drove 57 yards in eight plays to take the lead for good. Running back Kenny Miles ran in the touchdown from seven yards out. A seven-yard gain by Lattimore on 4th-and-1 at the UK 48 was one of several big plays on the drive.
After another brief series on offense for Kentucky, South Carolina marched in for the touchdown that put this largely out of reach. This time the Gamecocks drove 81 yards, on 14 methodical plays, against a tiring Kentucky defense.
Lattimore did the honors again, scoring from three-yards out. Adam Yates added his fourth point-after kick to make it, 28-17, Gamecocks with some 10 minutes left in the game.
The Wildcats picked up a first down on their next offensive series, but then Whitlow was picked off by Carolina’s DeVonte Hollomoan, who returned the ball to the Kentucky 32 with 8:47 left.
Sanders was hurt on the play for Kentucky and had to leave the game.
Two minutes later the Wildcats kept their hopes alive when USC went for it on 4th-and-10 at the Kentucky 32-yard line. Shaw gained nine yards up the middle, giving UK the ball at its own 23 with some 6:30 to go.
But the Wildcats frittered away the opportunity when Whitlow was intercepted by the Gamecocks deep in Kentucky territory and Lattimore capped a short drive with a four-yard touchdown run. Yates’ kick made it 35-17 Carolina with 5:19 to go.
Yates capped the scoring with a 31-yard field goal with 2:27 to go.
It was a sad end for Kentucky in a game that had such a promising beginning on both offense and defense.
On USC’s second possession of the game, the Gamecocks drove to the Kentucky one-yard line but failed to convert on fourth down.
Whitlow then led Kentucky on a 94-yard drive that did not stall until the Wildcats reached the South Carolina five-yard-line.
Craig McIntosh converted a 22-yard field goal for a 3-0 Kentucky lead that lasted into the second quarter.
South Carolina took a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, driving 64 yards in six plays, capping the series with a three-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to Ace Sanders.