After suffering its first loss of the season, Kentucky needs to guard against an emotional letdown when the No. 13 Wildcats host a rejuvenated South Carolina team in a Southeastern Conference matchup Saturday night in Lexington, Ky.
“I will coach against it, guard against it, talk about it, but one of the first things I said in the locker room is one (loss) can’t become two,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said at his weekly media briefing, referring to last weekend’s 22-19 setback at then-No. 14 Ole Miss. “Everybody is heated and emotional after a big game like that, and our guys know the belief is there. I think the intensity needs to come back.”
Kentucky (4-1, 1-1) welcomed back Chris Rodriguez from an early season suspension, and he rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown. But the Wildcats’ last two possessions ended with fumbles that cost them a shot at the win or a tie that would have forced overtime.
Stoops called the loss “very difficult” and said the Wildcats “did a lot of really good things.” But they did not come out of the game unscathed. Quarterback Will Levis injured a finger but stayed in the game and “is fine” for this week, Stoops said.
But defensive leader Jacquez Jones, who has 31 tackles and a sack and an interception this season, injured his foot and did not re-enter the game.
Stoops said “we’ll see” when asked about Jones’ availability but was slightly more optimistic about getting J.J. Weaver (15 tackles with a sack in three appearances) back in time for the Gamecocks after he sat out the Ole Miss game because of an arm injury.
“He’s getting better,” Stoops said of Weaver. “Chance is we’ll see him.”
Against South Carolina, the Wildcats will see a team that seems to have gotten new life after losses to ranked SEC opponents. Following a 44-30 defeat at then-No. 16 Arkansas and a 48-7 thrashing from then-No. 1 Georgia, the Gamecocks (3-2, 0-2) scored a combined 106 points in romps over Charlotte and South Carolina State.
Admittedly, the opposition has not been the stiffest (S.C. State is an FCS program and Charlotte is 1-5), but the way the Gamecocks went about their business showed promise.
MarShawn Lloyd rushed for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the two games, and Spencer Rattler was a combined 38-of-50 passing for 399 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s got really good command of what we’re doing,” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said of the Oklahoma transfer, who has completed 64.9 percent of his attempts. “I think he has a better understanding of it for sure.”
This will be the third ranked team the Gamecocks will have faced in the first half of the season. Kentucky has won seven of the last eight meetings, but that doesn’t add to the pressure, Beamer said.
“They’re all important,” he said. “That’s not coach-speak. Any time you get back in the SEC, it’s always critical as well. We’ve got great respect for their program.”