Ruffolo kicks UK to victory, defense comes up big for ‘Cats


Kentucky place kicker Matt Ruffolo (96) makes a field goal during the University of Kentucky vs. South Carolina football game on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. UK won 16-10. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Barkley Truax

What would Kentucky do without Matt Ruffolo?

The fifth year place kicker for the Wildcats split the uprights three different times Saturday night in the hostile environment that was Williams-Brice Stadium. His makes were good from 43, 21 and 27 yards out a piece — the deciding factor on the scoreboard that pushed the Wildcats to 4-0 on the seaso, as they defeated South Carolina 16-10.

Sandstorm, the rooster’s crow, a nearly-packed house in Columbia and Gamecock squad ready to rebound from a blowout loss at the hands of No. 2 Georgia last weekend made for an exciting — and especially loud atmosphere that the Wildcats hadn’t had to combat since November of 2019.

Despite the noise, Kentucky came out guns blazing rushing for 65 yards on a 75-yard opening drive capped by a 15-yard Kavosiey Smoke touchdown run — good for the only Kentucky touchdown of the night. Chris Rodriguez Jr. led the running back room on the drive with 35 yards on four attempts (8.8 per carry).

J.J. Weaver recorded the first sack of the game on third down late in the first quarter to force a punt and Kentucky started their third drive from their own four-yard-line. Back-to-back holding calls by tight end Justin Rigg kept Kentucky from getting anything going. 

The Kentucky defense defended their side of the field well that next drive, forcing another three-play drive. Through three possessions —the Gamecocks only had 34 yards of total offense. The offense couldn’t muster a single first down in the two drives following the opening touchdown; as is tradition at Kentucky — the defense bailed out the struggling offense by forcing a turnover on downs with just over eight minutes remaining in the first half.

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis threw his fifth interception of the season on a deep ball to Wan’Dale Robinson and was picked off by Jaylan Foster — his fourth of the season. While the Kentucky defense cleaned up the offense’s mess time after time Saturday night, the Wildcat offense looked stagnant heading into the locker room despite a 43-yard field goal make from Matt Ruffolo on the final play of the half to give Kentucky a 10-0 lead going into the locker room.

South Carolina received the opening second half kickoff, marching 75-yards for their first score of the night, nearly doubling their 80-yard performance through the first two quarters. The drive was capped by a five-yard reception by Jalen Brooks wide open in the back of the end zone. Quarterback Luke Doty went 5-6 for 62 yards to start the half.

Kentucky’s 13-play 72-yard drive was the longest since Smoke scored the opening touchdown and was capped by a second field goal by Ruffolo, this time from 21 yards out.

Carrington Valentine’s third down sack forced South Carolina to give the ball back to Kentucky, but once again — the offense did what they’ve done all season and turn the football over. Smoke coughed up the ball and the ‘Cats gave the ball away for the tenth time in four games; the most in the SEC.

For the umpteenth time, Kentucky’s defense came up huge on fourth and five from their own 25, forcing the turnover on downs for the second time Saturday to begin the final quarter.

Right on cue — Kentucky turned the ball over again. Josh Ali fumbled after a 12-yard gain that would’ve put the ‘Cats near midfield and the Gamecocks fell on it to ignite the crowd in Williams-Brice Stadium.

Rinse and repeat. Gamecocks turn it over on downs and — Kentucky scored. Ruffolo made his third field goal of the game to extend the lead to nine with four minutes remaining in regulation.

South Carolina played with urgency on their next drive, marching down the field quickly. Kentucky’s defense, yet again made a stop to force a Gamecock field goal by Parker White that split the uprights to cut the lead back down to six.

The Gamecocks elected to kick it deep instead of going for the onside late in the fourth and Kentucky gladly ran out the clock and escaped Williams-Brice with a victory. 

Despite a less-than-impressive offensive showing, Kentucky’s offense amassed 333 total offensive yards despite their three turnovers. Rodriguez Jr. rushed for 144 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry. Levis had a season-low 102 passing yards on 15-22 attempts — he also finished with 30 rushing yards on the night.

Kentucky, while it hasn’t been pretty, will be 4-0 when the No. 11 Florida Gators come to Lexington next Saturday, Oct. 2 at Kroger Field.