UK remains positive through difficult stretch of schedule

Saturday’s week six matchup between UK and South Carolina is the third game of a daunting three-game stretch on the Cats’ 2011 schedule. It began with their SEC-opener at home against SEC-powerhouse Florida and continued when they traveled to LSU to take on the No. 1 team in the nation. South Carolina marks the third consecutive ranked team the Cats will face to open their conference schedule.

“I was kind of ready for it because that’s what I signed up for playing in the SEC,” UK freshman running back Josh Clemons said. “You’re going to have to face hard teams like that back-to-back-to-back.”

UK lost to both Florida and LSU by a combined score of 83-24 in the previous two weeks. Despite keeping both games close early, UK was not able to stay with its SEC counterparts for a full 60 minutes of football.

Against Florida, the Cats and Gators traded punts until a turnover by the UK offense set Florida up with its first score of the game. UK would turn the ball over three more times for the game, allowing Florida to run away with a victory.

Against LSU, the Cats defense single-handedly kept  UK in the game in the first half, entering the locker rooms down just 14-0. But an inept offense that showed no ability to move the football against the Tigers’ menacing defense prevented the Cats from ever making it a game.

“My defense always plays well,” senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. “Florida did rush for 400-some yards on us, but it wasn’t the effort that they gave, they just out-schemed us and really out-ran us. They always come to play hard and they didn’t show me anything that I knew they couldn’t do.”

Upon first glance, UK feels South Carolina is a beatable team in comparison to its last two opponents. The Gamecocks lost their first game of the season Saturday against unranked Auburn by a score of 16-13. Auburn’s defense held South Carolina sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore to just 66 yards rushing on 17 carries, an average of less than four yards per carry.

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said he would like to “shake things up” this week in preparation for UK, which UK head coach Joker Phillips said he hopes means giving the ball to Lattimore less throughout the game. If Lattimore, who Phillips called a Heisman Trophy contender, can be contained by the UK defense for a second week in a row, the Cats will have a chance to compete with the Gamecocks.

“I hope they shake it up and don’t turn it over to 21 (Lattimore),” Phillips said. “That’s the shaking up I’d like to see done. You could go in there and hand it off to 21 and still have success. (South Carolina is) rushing for 197 yards (per game). I don’t know what shaking up needs to be done when you’re putting up the numbers that they’re putting up offensively, averaging 31 points a game.”

Spurrier, however, will have revenge on his mind when the Cats arrive in Columbia. Last year in Commonwealth Stadium, UK recorded its only win over a ranked opponent all year by defeating the then-No. 10 Gamecocks by a score of 31-28. It was the first time in 18 attempts that UK had beaten a Spurrier-coached team. Saturday, Spurrier will be looking to prevent it from becoming a trend.

“That’s just like if a team came in and beat us, the next time we play them we’re going to come out and play them extra tough,” Sneed said. “They felt like they had the game last year and we sort of snuck in and took it away from them, so I’m sure Coach Spurrier is definitely going to have those guys fired up and ready to go.”

Amid their recent three-game losing streak, dating back to a home loss to Louisville on Sept. 17, the Cats have managed to keep their spirits high. Clemons said that as a freshman, he has followed the leadership of his quarterback, junior Morgan Newton, and of seniors like linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy, to stay positive and continue working hard.

While it may not show up on the scoreboard, the team feels that they are improving every week and coming together as a football team. When they take the field in front of more than 80,000 screaming Gamecocks fans, they will leave the losses behind them and line up expecting to have a chance to defeat South Carolina.

“You have to erase the bad things and try to come out and have a new week,” Sneed said. “We try to go one game at a time. We lost one, now it’s time to come back and try to win the next one. Just because you lost doesn’t mean you’re going to lose the next one, so we just have to keep fighting.”

“We’re all coming together as a team, there’s just little bits and pieces that we need to work on and get things going,” Guy added. “We got a lot of football left. Things are going to come along and we just got to keep practicing hard and things are going to come in our favor in the end.”