The streak that Kentucky snapped on Saturday night that everyone is going to talk about is a 22-game road skid and a six-year drought in SEC wins on the road. But here's another mark of how different the Wildcats appear to be in Mark Stoops' third season: For the first time in 16 years, Kentucky has beaten South Carolina in back-to-back seasons after topping the Gamecocks, 26-22, on Saturday.
That's the kind of incremental success that allows a team to move up in the pecking order in its division. At times, the game against South Carolina was harrowing; were it not for a South Carolina fumble on a two-point conversion that was returned for a safety, or a Chris Westry interception with the Gamecocks driving in Kentucky territory, this game could be quite different. But it was a win, and the South Carolina program that now seems to be on the decline reached its height earlier in the decade by consistently defeating programs that were once ahead of it.
Even though Kentucky got outgained by the Gamecocks, 417-399, there were some strong offensive performances. Patrick Towles was 21-of-29 for 192 yards and an early interception. Stanley Williams ran the ball 14 times for 107 yards; Jojo Kemp had 13 carries for 78 yards. In all, the Kentucky running game churned out 5.4 yards a carry and finished the night with 207 yards and three touchdowns on 38 attempts.
That's not to say that the Kentucky win was without its hiccups. Once again, the Wildcats seemed to lose steam at halftime, and almost allowed South Carolina to come all the way back from a 24-7 hole. Between the beginning of the second half and the game-killing drive where the Gamecocks defense finally broke, the Wildcats managed a single first down. And again, were it not for those two South Carolina mistakes, that inability to move the ball could have cost Kentucky dearly.
The question also raises uncomfortable questions for South Carolina fans, some of whom had already steeled themselves for a long season. Steve Spurrier's judgment in starting Connor Mitch over Perry Orth seems exceedingly questionable after this game. Aside from the admittedly disastrous turnover, Orth looked consistently better at throwing the ball and doing so with accuracy than Mitch has looked this far. And a defense that sleepwalked its way through the first game and a half seemed to come alive once Orth was firmly in command. If there is any hope remaining for the Gamecocks in 2015, it will be with Orth starting at quarterback, not Mitch.
Orth, who entered the game after an injury to Mitch, finished 13-of-20 for 179 yards, a touchdown and an interception. By way of contrast, Mitch is 13-of-29 for 165 yards and a touchdown. Pharoh Cooper, the unquestioned focal point of the South Carolina offense, had three catches for 45 yards in the opener against North Carolina and nine catches for 100 yards -- much of that after Orth entered the game -- against Kentucky. Any logic for continuing to start Mitch, healthy or not, is baffling.
But the story of Saturday night was Kentucky. It's still far too early to seriously talk about the Wildcats being contenders in the SEC East, but after some of the other results this weekend, it didn't seem utterly ridiculous to at least consider it. And there is some time for the Wildcats to show if they're serious; the next road game doesn't come until Oct. 24. Not that being away from home is as intimidating for Kentucky now as it used to be.