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Keith Taylor: Resilient Wildcats proved they can shot take a shot to the gut, then fight right back and win

The culture is changing at Kentucky and it’s all for the better.

Even when things looked bleak after South Carolina opened the game with Jake Bentley’s 63-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel Saturday night, the Wildcats didn’t flinch and recovered from the Gamecocks’ quick strike to go on to defeat the Gamecocks 23-13.

Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart were all smiles after Kentucky’s win at South Carolina Saturday night (UK Athletics Photo)

The long touchdown was a typical punch in the gut for the Wildcats, but the response, just simply fighting back, was something new from this Kentucky team.

“You take a shot right to the chin,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “You start to gain, place is going wild and we embraced it. We took the shot and went right back to work. That doesn’t even faze us. That’s what I love about this team.”

Not an easy task on the road, the Wildcats proved overcoming adversity can be done with this squad, one that showed resilience and patience in their Southeastern Conference opener. Stoops indicated during preseason workouts his team is able to handle more capacity than last year’s squad and it showed in a big way on the third week of the regular season.

“It was a great team victory,” Stoops said. “I (said since day) one that they had a winning mentality and a winning work ethic and now you’re seeing that.”

The first two wins — a seven-point victory at Southern Mississippi, followed by a less-than-spectacular 27-16 triumph over Eastern Kentucky — weren’t fashionable blowouts by any stretch, but Stoops didn’t care about the margin of victory and has a handle on his team behind the scenes.

“Everyone wants to panic because you’ve got to look pretty all the time,” Stoops said. “Winning is what matters. We have a edge and an attitude about us and I like it that way.”

That edge and attitude was on display especially on defense against South Carolina, which was shut out of the end zone not once, but twice in the second half. The Wildcats stopped the Gamecocks in fourth and goal at the 1-yard line and had another stop in the red zone at crunch time. An interception by Mike Edwards in the closing minutes sealed the deal as Kentucky aligned in the victory formation to run out the clock.

“We’re better (on defense),” Stoops said. “They are just getting some basic things fixed and the football is very good. Teams still put you in tough matches, just like that first play. I wish we could have that one back. Those are tough matchups.”

South Carolina lost its three previous games against Kentucky, but still, the Wildcats weren’t favored in their second road game of the season.

“Quite honestly, we were tired of it (being an underdog),” Stoops said. “What? Like we didn’t get better? Like we aren’t a better football team?”

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, Kentucky’s calming presence on offense, said being the underdog “played a big part” in the team’s ability to overcome the Gamecocks.

“It seems like everybody has had us as the underdog, so it just gives us extra motivation coming out here and okaying big games, in big situations, big environments and wanting to do well,” he said.

As has been the case all season, Stoops knows things aren’t perfect with a matchup looming with Florida Saturday. The Gators have won 30 in a row against the Wildcats and are coming into Lexington on a high following a dramatic 26-20 win over Tennessee last weekend.

“We’re going to have to continue to get better as the season goes on,” Stoops said. “But, their work ethic is right, their attitude is right. They can take a punch, that’s for sure.”

The Kentucky coach added the Wildcats can’t dwell on the performance at South Carolina in moving forward.

“We play this competition every week and we are going to keep our edge and our attitude,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to be hungry and humble. Just keep on staying focused on getting better and working. This team will do that.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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