By Alex Forkner
If close losses to the University of Louisville and the University of Florida were two small steps forward for this UK football team, then the near-upset of the University of South Carolina is a giant leap in the right direction.
The game had all the makings of a potential bloodbath. The Cats’ last trip to Columbia ended in a 54-3 blowout loss, a bad week of practice had UK head coach Mark Stoops giving gambling advice and the quarterback who would lead UK’s discombobulated offense was a mystery.
And after a 21-point first quarter from South Carolina, you couldn’t help but feel like you’d been here before; as if UK was regressing back to the ineptitude of years past before your eyes.
But then came a shift. UK sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow led the offense on a 75-yard touchdown drive. The defense held the Gamecocks to a field goal to end the first half, and another to open the second.
Then Whitlow started to look like the guy coaches were yearning for all season. He rattled off runs and propelled passes to open receivers, finding a rhythm the team has lacked almost all year. On this night, finally, UK started to tango instead of tripping over two left feet.
After South Carolina fumbled on a kickoff return and Whitlow found freshman receiver Ryan Timmons in the endzone on a rare culmination of perfect play calling and execution, the Gamecock lead was down to just six points. A UK victory wasn’t only possible but plausible, the thought of which seemed absolutely impossible only hours before.
When the defense surrendered a touchdown to South Carolina, the Cats’ offense answered with one of its own. There’s a pluck to this team fans aren’t accustomed to seeing, an unwillingness to roll over and be who UK has been for so long.
In the end, UK was a missed tackle away from getting the ball back with a chance to tie the game. A loss is a loss, and coaches are loath to claim moral victories. But Stoops must be secretly satisfied with his team’s performance Saturday, even if that joy is hiding deep in a corner of the left ventricle of his heart.
Of course UK wants to win and could have done so if they played better. The defense only forced one punt, struggling to stop South Carolina’s dual-threat senior quarterback Connor Shaw. The offense again started slow and surrendered some negative plays. Not to mention, football-playing superhuman junior defensive end Jadaveon Clowney spent the game on the sideline.
But losing a one-possession game to a top-15 team really isn’t so terrible, is it?
Last year, the Cats lost to the Gators and Gamecocks by a combined score of 76 to 17. This year, the margin was just 59 to 35 — quantifiable progress against two superior foes.
All along, Stoops and the rest of the UK coaches have been pointing out improvements the team is making. It might not be manifesting itself in the win column at the moment, but that this team, composed of Joker Phillips’ leftovers and a troupe of true freshmen, is even competitive is a near miracle.
And this team should keep being competitive. It finally has a quarterback; Whitlow finished with 247 total yards and three total touchdowns. Also, the fresh-faced defense should become more grizzled as the season wears on.
Next week, though, UK can only hope the progress they’ve made isn’t brought to a halt when the No. 1 University of Alabama rolls into town.