COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kentucky hasn’t won a road game in more than five years. But the Wildcats knew just what to do when they broke that 22-game streak with a 26-22 win Saturday night at South Carolina.
“We had a party,” Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles said. “It was a lot of fun going off someone else’s field a winner.”
Kentucky (2-0, 1-0) also needed one of the rarest of plays to end what also was a six-year SEC road losing streak. South Carolina (1-1, 0-1) had a chance to tie on a two-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter. But Pharoh Cooper fumbled and Denzil Ware returned the ball 98 yards to give Kentucky two points and what proved to be the final margin.
The Wildcats led 24-7 at the half behind an offense that didn’t have to punt. But it was the defense that held things together in the second half, bending but not breaking — forcing the Gamecocks into field goals on three straight trips into the red zone.
And with the Gamecocks driving deep into Kentucky territory, Chris Westry picked off a bad pass by backup Gamecocks quarterback Perry Orth with 4:32 to go at the Wildcats 26. The offense eked out three of their four second half first downs and gained 46 of their 92 second half yards to run out the clock. The blue-clad fans in the corner of one end zone began singing “My Old Kentucky Home” and the players celebrated in the locker room of an opponent’s stadium for the first time since beating Louisville in the 2010 season opener.
Third-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops let them celebrate a little. But he will remind them this was just one victory for a team that hasn’t been to a bowl game in four seasons.
“I think it is another step in the right direction,” Stoops said. “We are certainly very far from the finished product, but I really like where they are headed.”
Patrick Towles went 21-for-29 for 192 yards. Dorian Baker caught five passes for 55 yards and Jojo Kemp ran 13 times for 78 yards.
Kentucky gained 307 yards in the first half, taking the same 24-7 lead into the locker room the Wildcats had in the opener against Louisiana Lafayette. And just like that game, Kentucky came out flat in the second half and had to rally to a 40-33 win on a touchdown with 57 seconds left.
“We knew this was going to be a four-quarter game. It always seems to happen,” Stoops said.
South Carolina’s only touchdown in the first half came on a 1-yard run by starting quarterback Connor Mitch after Skai Moore got the 10th interception of his career.
But Mitch was hurt late in the second quarter when he tried to recover a fumbled option pitch. He hurt his shoulder and didn’t come back. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the sophomore might be out for the year with a separated shoulder.
So Spurrier turned to Orth, who played solid for the most part in his first significant action of his career. He went 13-of-20 for 179 yards, but had the critical interception where he underthrew his receiver and it went straight to Westry’s arms.
Westry lost the ball on the return, but the officials ruled him down and a replay review confirmed the call.
“It felt like a lifetime,” Westry said of the review as he wasn’t sure the ball had not come out before he was down.
Orth said he was running and just didn’t get enough lift on his pass.
“I was pretty frustrated about that,” Orth said. “We were moving the ball the entire second half. I throw the ball four feet higher like I had planned to and hopefully, probably a different outcome.”
Brandon Wilds ran 16 times for 106 yards and Cooper caught nine passes for 100 yards as the Gamecocks gained 417 yards to Kentucky’s 399 yards.
It was only the third time Spurrier has lost to Kentucky in 23 games at Florida and South Carolina.
“The second half we did a lot of good things,” Spurrier said. “We moved the ball offensively. We just didn’t score.”