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Stoops, perfect Cats seek to keep streak going against Gamecocks

Kentucky running back Benny Snell rushed for 102 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last year’s win at South Carolina. The two teams will meet Saturday at Kroger Field. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky will attempt to knock down another proverbial door in front of an expected sellout crowd Saturday at Kroger Field.

The 17th-ranked Wildcats, who have won their first two Southeastern Conference encounters for the first time since 1977, will attempt to keep the streak going against South Carolina. Kentucky hasn’t won its first three conference games since compiling a perfect record against league foes 41 years ago.

The Wildcats (4-0, 2-0) are coming off a 28-7 victory over Mississippi State, a win that vaulted Kentucky into the Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade. Wildcats coach Mark Stoops is confident his team is more than confident Kentucky can handle the early prosperity.

“I know we have a mature enough team to worry about ourselves,” Stoops said Thursday. “That’s always it. As I’ve mentioned 100 times, if they need some little piece of it to motivate it, so be it. That’s not all of us and that’s not the majority of the team.

“The team takes pride in the way play and all the work that they put in the offseason and so on. So, it’s about our preparation and what we do. Emotion usually goes out the door pretty quickly. What’s most important is how excited you are to practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

Kentucky has won the past four meetings against the Gamecocks, including a hard-fight 17-10 victory last year in Columbia. Stoops used last year’s contest as a “teaching tool” to serve as an example of his team’s perseverance in the second half.

“We executed better (last year),” Stoops said. “And to their credit, they really made some big plays early in that game. They’re tough and they’re explosive as we saw on the opening play of the game. But we have to play, and we have to execute.

“You always have to have the intensity level up, but as I mentioned that’s all the time. That’s during the week and in our prep and it’s about execution. That’s how we’ve gone about it. Sure, our team has been excited and ready to play, but they’ve been the first one to tell you when you listen they’ve been excited to practice. So, how we execute and the way we play I think is most important.”

Kentucky ’s Benny Snell rushed for 102 yards and a pair of scores in last year’s contest, while South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel hauled a 68-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive. Samuel hauled in five catches for 122 yards before leaving with a season-ending injury in the fourth quarter. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s game.

Stoops said this year’s contest could emulate last year’s showdown between the two SEC East rivals.

“I think it’s a big part of this game — definitely a big part of the storyline because it goes without saying now,” Stoops said. “You know with the line of scrimmage, but with the way both teams can run the ball and with numbers the way they are, it’s definitely going to be a lot on the perimeter this week. Who makes the explosive plays and who defends the explosive plays. It’ll be a big piece of the game.”

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp agreed and said slowing down Snell will be a big chunk of his team’s game plan this weekend.

“Well you’ve got to swarm the ball field — that’s the bottom line,” Muschamp said. “When you play really good backs, they are going to make you miss. They are going to break some tackles. You’ve got to swarm the football — you’ve got to leverage the ball the right way. The ball carrier is never down until the whistle blows.

“You’ve got to finish on the ball carrier, and you have to have the right mindset going into the game. And I think that’s something really important when you play a back like Snell because he is a guy you’re going to have to gang-tackle to get on the ground.”

South Carolina (2-1, 1-1) is coming off a 37-14 victory at Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks opened league play with a 41-17 setback to Eastern division favorite Georgia on Sept. 8 in Columbia.

Based on recent history between the two teams, the contest will likely be close. Four of the past five meetings between the two teams have been decided by seven points or less and Stoops is expecting another close game.

“(It will be a) great atmosphere playing a very good South Carolina team (and I am) looking forward to that challenge,” the Kentucky coach said. “… It’s been a good week of preparation so far (and I’ve) been pleased with our team’s concentration and attitude and effort.”

Gametracker: South Carolina at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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