LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knows his team can’t afford attention lapses when the Wildcats visit South Carolina.
The Wildcats (1-0) enter Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference opener for both teams, seeking their first win in Columbia since 1999, and against a Gamecocks squad team energized by a comeback victory over rival North Carolina.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier certainly let his team forget last year’s 45-38 upset loss in Lexington, which Kentucky won on a late interception return for a touchdown.
“We’ll have our hands full for sure,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. With “us beating them last year, we’ve got to go into their place, it’ll be a very difficult environment and against a team that’ll be very hungry to get after us.”
Stoops said Kentucky must be dialed in athletically and mentally better than it was blowing a 23-point second half lead to Louisiana-Lafayette. The Wildcats pulled out the win on Mikel Horton’s 12-yard TD run in the final minute, helping Kentucky escape with a 40-33 victory to cap a successful housewarming at Commonwealth Stadium following a $120 million renovation.
Stoops remained upbeat two days after the narrow win he partly chalked up to an energy drop after the Wildcats built a 33-10 lead midway through the third quarter. With players focused on making a good impression following weeks of hype around the stadium makeover, the coach said they lost their edge once the game seemed in hand.
Junior quarterback Patrick Towles particularly struggled despite throwing three touchdown passes and succeeding on deep throws in the first half. After completing 10 of 18 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns before halftime, he was just 6 of 16 for 38 yards afterward and found nothing downfield.
“He had some great throws and some explosive plays but just missed some opportunities,” Stoops said of Towles.
The Ragin’ Cajuns took advantage of Wildcats’ defensive lapses and a rare missed extra point by sophomore kicker Austin MacGinnis to reel off 23 unanswered points including a pair of two-point conversions. Louisiana outgained Kentucky 479-435 including 282-132 after halftime, but the Wildcats made a key defensive stop to set up the winning TD.
“It’s a great learning point for us,” Stoops said. “We’ve just to do a better job of just focusing, being confident and just doing our job. … You’ve got to be able to handle your business and play every snap, and that’s the learning opportunity we have to take from this game.”
For sure, Kentucky must be more consistent defensively against the Gamecocks after they rushed for 254 yards on UNC.
Four South Carolina backs gained at least 42 yards and third-stringer Shon Carson broke the game-winning 48-yard TD run en route to a team-high 75 yards on four carries. If the Wildcats are to earn their first conference road win since 2009 at Georgia (34-14), they’ll need to be good against the run - and other areas - against the Gamecocks.
“You have to be a complete football team on the road,” Stoops said. “It is a mentality. A toughness that you have to have to go on the road and be disciplined to come out of there with a victory.”
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