COLUMBIA, SC Sept. 13, 2015 – A sellout crowd welcomed home the Gamecocks as the 2015 home season began Saturday night in Williams-Brice Stadium. The Kentucky Wildcats (2-0, 1-0 SEC) would do just enough to hold off a furious second-half comeback attempt in a 26-22 win over Carolina (1-1, 0-1 SEC).
The nine-day break since the team’s game against North Carolina would not slow down linebacker Skai Moore, who helped set up the game’s first scoring drive of the day with his third interception of the season. The Wildcats faced a third-and-9 from their own three on the first drive of the game, and on the play Boosie Whitlow would come virtually untouched from the right end and forced a hurried throw from Kentucky’s Patrick Towles. Moore would be the only receiver in sight, and he returned his tenth career interception down to the one.
Just one play later, Connor Mitch ran it in for his first career rushing touchdown.
The visitors would rally back for the game’s next two scores and closed the first quarter with a 14-7 lead. Kentucky held a held a 157-62 lead in total yards in the first, with a balanced attack that featured 79 yards passing to five different receivers and three running backs totaling 78 yards on the ground.
Brandon Wilds would be tasked with helping to boost the offense, and his effective running between the tackles would be its first spark of the night. With 7:21 to go in the first half, Wilds ran on four of the first five plays of the drive for 25 yards total. Connor Mitch would then hook up with Pharoh Cooper on a post route to put the offense in the redzone for the first time since its one-play scoring drive in the first quarter.
Just a few plays later, though, a botched option pitch would not only cost the Gamecocks seven yards on third down, but it would cost them their starting quarterback as well. Mitch would dive for the fumbled pitch, but injured his shoulder in the process.
A missed field goal ended Carolina’s drive, and the Wildcats offense made quick work in the final three minutes of the half with a 76-yard touchdown drive. Towles set it up with a pair of long completions and capped it himself with a one-yard dive with seconds remaining in the half for a 24-7 lead.
The Gamecock defense came out on a mission to start the second half and quickly forced Kentucky’s first punt of the game. A low, spiraling punt would be returned for 24 yards by Pharoh Cooper to set up the offense.
Perry Orth would take the reins of the offense after Mitch was diagnosed with a shoulder injury, and he and Cooper would connect to get the team back into the redzone. Carolina would later settle for a 27-yard field goal to get back on the scoreboard, trailing 24-10.
Kentucky would go three-and-out again to set up the Gamecocks just shy of midfield. A 34-yard run for Brandon Wilds on the first play of the drive would keep sliding the momentum little by little. The drive would stall inside the 15 again, though, leading to another Fry field goal and a 24-13 game.
The Wildcats continued to be stymied on offense, going three-and-out on its third straight drive of the half with four minutes to go in the third and the Gamecocks took over with the comeback attempt thriving. Strong runs from Shon Carson would put them down to the two yard line, but a penalty would set them back.
As the third quarter came to a close, the Gamecocks held a 136-22 advantage in yards gained in the 15-minute span, but were still in search of that elusive touchdown. The penalty would ultimately come back to cost them and a third straight drive would be sealed by a field goal.
After a fourth-straight punt from Kentucky, the Gamecocks would use some clutch throws from Orth to finally hit pay-dirt. Facing a third-and-12 on their own 33, Orth hit Cooper for 16. Later in the drive, he connected with Deebo Samuel for 10 on fourth-and-two, and on the very next play Jerell Adams took a post route 33 yards for the score and a 24-22 game. It was Orth’s first career touchdown pass.
On the team’s two-point attempt to try and tie the game, Cooper would fumble and Kentucky took it 98 yards for two points of their own and a 26-22 advantage. It would be a game-defining play, as it meant the Gamecocks needed a touchdown to complete the comeback.
The Wildcats would convert their first first down of the half with eight minutes to go, trying to respond to Carolina’s comeback. It would go no further than that, but put 89 yards in front of the Gamecocks with just seven minutes left to go. What started as a healthy drive would be stopped after Orth was intercepted at the Kentucky 23 after being flushed from the pocket. The Wildcats were able to seal the win after a pair of first downs burned Carolina’s remaining timeouts.
After starting the drive at their own 11, the Gamecocks were driving deep into Kentucky territory with just under five minutes left to go. Perry Orth was flushed to his left on first down and threw across his body to Deebo Samuel. It would be short-armed, and Kentucky stepped in front of it for Carolina’s only turnover of the game.
The Gamecocks out-gained Kentucky 256-92 in the second half to fuel the comeback attempt. The Carolina defense forced five punts and held Kentucky to 1-of-7 on third down in the half.
– With his tenth career interception, Skai Moore is now tied for eighth in school history.
– Brandon Wilds finished with 16 carries for 106 yards. It is his fifth career 100-yard game, with the last coming against Tennessee last season.
– Jonathan Walton led the defense with 11 tackles for the night, one shy of matching his career high that was set last season against Florida.
– Elliott Fry’s three field goals in the second half were the most for the junior since the South Alabama game last season. It is his fourth career game with three or more field goals made. He now moves into fifth place in program history for field goals made (49) and attempted (37).
– Kentucky has now won two straight games in the series, but the Gamecocks still lead the all-time series 17-9-1. Carolina had won 13 of 15 coming into Saturday night.
South Carolina Head Coach Steve Spurrier
That was a game of two halves. Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough touchdowns. We went down there and kicked a bunch of field goals, just didn’t connect and threw a pick there at the end of the game. But, I’m proud of the way the defense played in the second half. I don’t think they (Kentucky) made a first down until late in the game. I wish we could have made one more stop to see what might have happened but it didn’t work out that way. Too bad about Connor Mitch, I think he was diving for that ill advised option play and separated his right shoulder. It looks like he’s out. Perry (Orth) came in and played pretty well. The last play he said ‘Coach the guy was open behind me and I just couldn’t get to him’ and I said ‘Perry it was first down’ but that’s just the way it happened. Pharoh (Cooper) had a good game. That was actually one of the two-point plays we wanted to run and they (Kentucky) sort of zoned up, obviously we should have had a better two-point play. They stopped us on that. That’s the way it happened here tonight. Give those guys credit, they were 4-for-4 in the red zone and we were 4-for-5.
The team will travel to Athens for a primetime showdown with Georgia. The Bulldogs opened their SEC season on Saturday with a win at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. and the game will air on ESPN.