Outside of a couple of key possessions, Kentucky’s defense against South Carolina did more than enough to give the Wildcats a chance to win. But the inability to polish off the Gamecocks in critical third-down scenarios resulted in another crushing loss for Kentucky.
We can point to two possessions in particular that tell the story of Saturday night’s game in Columbia. One coming during South Carolina’s opening possession and the other midway through the fourth quarter — both ending in Gamecock touchdowns. A lack of finishing off drives on third down cost the Wildcats in both situations. It ultimately cost them a win.
“It’s a real problem,” Head coach Mark Stoops said postgame of Kentucky’s third-down defense. “We got to get pressure. It’s time and operation a lot of times with extra long yardage, it’s predictable pass. We got to do a better job of getting pass rush. There’s certain coverage issues where we got to have more awareness.
“We got to look at all aspects. We got to look at our coaching, where we’re putting them and what calls we’re making in those situations and what our guys can do. It was really a weird game that way because you felt like the defense was so good in so many situations and then so bad in some critical situations.”
On South Carolina’s first possession, quarterback Spencer Rattler faced two third-and-longs. The first was a (semi-long) 3rd-and-7 at the South Carolina 44-yard line, which saw Rattler complete a 10-yard pass to Xavier Legette for a first down. A few plays later, Kentucky had the Gamecocks looking at a 3rd-and-11 at the UK 47-yard line, but again Rattler made a play, rushing 12 yards to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, South Carolina would score to take a 7-0 lead.
“We had opportunities,” Defensive coordinator Brad White said postgame about that first drive. “Against Tennessee there was two third downs. This game there were two third downs. We had opportunities to get off the field and we’ve got to execute those. In both those third downs tonight, again I’ve got to go back to the film, it felt like we had an opportunity to get Rattler down, and on both those he scrambled.”
Just looking at the stats, South Carolina only went 5-14 (35.7 percent) on third conversions Saturday night. Not a terrible mark for the defense, but certainly not ideal (Kentucky actually ranks 103rd out of 133 in the nation in third-down defense). That being said, all five of those successful third downs came during South Carolina’s three scoring drives: two in the opening drive that resulted in a touchdown, one more in the drive immediately after that gave the Gamecocks a field goal, and then the final two during South Carolina’s game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
It was the two down the stretch though that stand out the most and will haunt the Wildcats moving forward.
Up 14-10 with 13 minutes left in regulation, Kentucky needed one big stop to put the game away for good. The ‘Cats forced South Carolina into a 3rd-and-15 at their own 21-yard line but allowed Rattler to toss one 27 yards to Legette for a first. Later in the same drive, now at the UK 17-yard line, the Gamecocks were staring down a 3rd-and-9. A stop would force South Carolina into a likely field goal attempt. But Rattler found his man Legette one more time for a touchdown, giving the Gamecocks the go-ahead score and a 17-14 lead.
“3rd and long. Got out on us, they hit a dagger route to the field. We were trying to get the guys back and they got a little bit antsy and pulled down in the coverage and (Rattler) had a little too much time to find that window right behind them,” White said of that possession. “That got them going and moving down and then we get into third down there in the redzone and try to be aggressive. That was kinda the game plan today, is we were going to try to be aggressive throughout.”
Outside of South Carolina’s three scoring drives, Kentucky flashed moments of dominance on defense. Sophomore defensive lineman Deone Walker was especially impressive with nine tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack. Senior linebacker D’Eryk Jackson was equally as effective with nine tackles of his own, one tackle for loss, and one pass deflection.
Those two were constant headaches for the South Carolina offensive line. Both came up clutch on multiple occasions with timely stops. But the defensive unit as a whole could never consistently get on the same page. It showed up at the worst possible moments.
“The negative yardage plays that the defensive line created during those stretches was super important because we were getting them in some extra-long situations and we couldn’t capitalize with the one there late where they scored,” Stoops said. “We had our opportunities and it just didn’t happen.”