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South Carolina Football's Top 5 Games Against Kentucky

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Looking back at the highlights of the Gamecocks-Wildcats Rivalry.

Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

"The Gamecocks have brought virtually nothing to the table in football. They are the SEC family's embarrassing cousin." Billy Reed, Lexington Herald-Journal columnist (1999) [calling for the ouster of USC from the SEC].

History

The history of the University of Kentucky is a little difficult to follow.  Before the Civil War, present-day Transylvania University in Lexington (founded way back in 1780 in a log cabin), a private institution, was called "Kentucky University."  In 1865, the state used Morrill Land Grant funds to form the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky, which it made a part of "Kentucky University." The A&M program split away in 1878; by 1880 it had settled into its own, separate campus in Lexington. This newly-independent school was known as Kentucky State College until 1913, at which point it was officially re-named the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky's Southern-fried gridiron bona fides are unquestioned. UK first fielded a football team in 1881. Although the squad went dormant for a decade (not unusual as universities struggled with how to deal with this unorganized but hugely popular fad that was truly sweeping across every region of the country), football was revived at the school in 1891. The nickname "Wildcats" was adopted back in 1909 after an upset win over Illinois. Kentucky was an off-and-on member of the venerable Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association from the 1890s to 1920; in protest over the SIAA rejecting proposals that would have curbed some of the creeping professionalism in collegiate sports at the time, in 1921 UK became one of the 14 founders of the Southern Conference [USC would join with five more members in 1922].  A decade later, in 1932, Kentucky was one of the original 13 institutions that broke from the Southern to establish the SEC.

The first USC-UK meeting was back on November 6, 1937, when Coach Don McAllister's overmatched Gamecocks (5-6-1) bowed 27-7 to a fairly mediocre UK (4-6) team in Lexington.

The great Paul "Bear" Bryant would arrive at Lexington in 1946 (hired away from Maryland) and put the Wildcats on the map for eight spectacular seasons, which included multiple Top-10 AP poll finishes and a victory for the ages over #1 Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl [which broke OU's 31 game winning-streak] but alas was not enough for a National Championship. As most of you know, Bryant would leave Lexington for Texas A&M and then go on to immortality at Alabama. A lot of speculation is out there that Bryant left because he was feuding with legendary UK basketball coach Adolph Rupp - but here is a link to a well-researched piece that says it is all a myth.

After Bryant left, Kentucky had its ups-and-downs. During our independent days, we would next meet UK again in 1978 and 1981 when the 'Cats were coached by Fran Curci. We tied in '78 at home (more on that below) and finally got off the schneid versus Kentucky with a big win in '81 up at Lexington. We would not meet again, however, until the Gamecocks began SEC play in 1992.

Since joining the league, the Cocks hold a decisive 16-8 advantage over Kentucky but it's always seemed a lot closer than the record would indicate - even setting aside the last two heartbreakers in '14 and '15. Sparky Woods went 1-2 from 92 to 94; Brad Scott went 2-2, including a tough rainy day loss when UK RB Moe WiIliams dedicated the game to his late mother and torched us for over 300 all purpose yards in 1995 (we lost 35-30). The worm would begin to turn against UK with the arrival of Lou Holtz in 1999.  After dropping the '99 contest, Holtz would win five in a row, and Spurrier would duplicate that between 2005-2009. Since UK's 2010 victory, things have even upped quite a bit and both teams are 3-3 in the last six meetings.

Top Five Wildcat-Gamecock Games (from USC's Perspective!)

This has been a tough one in picking the top 5 games - a lot more difficult, in fact, than picking the ones for MSU and ECU.  I've decided to leave out some wallopings we have delivered to the 'Cats: 2011 (54-3), 2005 (44-16), and 2001 (42-6), nor did I include our first win in 1981 at Lexington (28-14), or our first SEC victory over the Cats in 1994 (23-9), or the time we finally beat UK at Williams-Brice in 1997 (38-24). There have been a lot of close games over the years, and not all can be included, but I've settled on these five contests primarily for their drama and/or their impact on the Gamecocks' season or program. So without further ado, here is the best of the best between the Garnet & Black and the Blue & White.

5.    October 15, 2004 @ Lexington [USC 12 - UK 7]

The epic 63-17 whipping that Clemson administered to us at the end of 2003 capped a miserable 5-7 season (2-6 SEC) and hung like a pall over the program. Within 48 hours, Coach Lou Holtz had fired our Defensive Coordinator and OL and QB coaches, and reassigned the DB coach to administrative duties. He also demoted his son Skip from Offensive Coordinator to QB coach (shamefully, Skip first learned about it in The State).  Entering 2004, we now had five new position coaches/coordinators; the glory days of 2000 (8-4) and 2001 (9-3) with the back-to-back Outback Bowl victories over Ohio State seemed a long, long time ago.  Six games into '04, however, it looked like Lou's housecleaning had worked - we stood at 4-2, with a strong 20-3 win at Alabama (our second ever over the Tide and 1st in Tuscaloosa) and close losses at Georgia and home to Ole Miss.  We had even briefly entered the AP Poll at # 25 before losing to the Rebels. Now it was time to play Kentucky on the road - in their second season under the very savvy Rich Brooks. The Wildcats had played us close in 2002 and 2003 and with the "Orange Crush" [UT, @ UF, @ Clemson] plus Arkansas looming ahead, we simply could not afford another conference loss and retain any hope of a winning season. Adding to our concern, our starting QB RS Sr. Dondrial Pinkins had suffered a partially torn rotator cuff injury in the UGA loss and was still rehabbing. Back-up QB Syvelle Newton would start for the Cocks.

The first half was nightmarish for both squads with a total of six combined turnovers. Somehow the Gamecocks held a 6-0 lead at the intermission on two 2nd quarter FGs by K/P Josh Brown (one a 20 yarder after a UK fumble; another from 43 yards).  For their part, UK missed a FG in that 1st quarter and could not must any offense. We would not be able to put it on cruise control, though. Right before Brown's second FG, Syvelle injured his ankle while being sacked and had to leave the game. Our third-string QB, Blake Mitchell could not find any rhythm in relief and UK under their athletic QB Shane Boyd managed to cobble together a devastating 23 play, 11:54 minute drive that started from their own six and resulted in the game's first TD.  On our next possession with just 6:29 left, and trailing 7-6, Mitchell threw a pick (our 5th turnover of the game) and the Cats took over on our 40. Yikes! The game seemed certainly lost, but the defense found the will to stop the 'Cats and force a punt. Holtz then put in the fourth-string QB Michael Rathe - a J.C. transfer from San Diego, CA who had seen only extremely limited action in '03 and '04.  With nothing short of sheer heroism, the unheralded Rathe orchestrated an 88 yard, 13 play drive for Carolina, in which the fourth-stringer would complete 5 of 7 passes; the final completion was a 19 yard, leaping TD catch by Troy Williamson with 1:28 left on the clock.  We failed on the ensuing two point conversion, but Shane Boyd could only muster four incompletions on the 'Cats last series and we eked out an improbable 12-7 win.

We would go on to finish 1-3 over the final stretch, in which Holtz announced he was leaving the program before a 34 point loss at Gainseville.  Even though the news came quickly that Steve Spurrier would take over in 2005, the Gamecock players were upset; USC would go on to a second drubbing (7-29) at Clemson marred by The Brawl. While Rathe's heroics were one of the biggest reasons we were bowl eligible at 6-5 (4-4 SEC), Clemson and USC self-penalized themselves any post-season bids and the Holtz era ended with a whimper. Still, Rathe's brilliant 88 yard drive to save the 2004 season makes this game deserving of recognition.

4.    September 16, 1978 - Columbia [USC 14 - UK 14]

It was our first meeting with Kentucky since the leather helmet days of 1937. It was the opener for UK, but Carolina had already dispatched I-AA Furman 45-10. The Wildcats were coached by Fran Curci, who was in his sixth season at the helm in Lexington. His 1977 'Cats had gone 10-1 (6-0 SEC) in dominant fashion and finished ranked # 7 overall.  UK now entered '78 ranked # 17 in the AP and was looking to sustain that same level of success going forward. For USC, after two decent seasons under Jim Carlen in 1975 (7-5) and 1976 (6-5) [including the 56-20 de-pantsing of Clemson in '75], we had hit the skids in 1977 following the 4-1 start and the 4th quarter heroics against ECU. We were hoping for an improved 1978 campaign, but this early tilt with UK had a lot of Gamecock fans justifiably nervous. UK had graduated a very successful QB in '77 and had a new stater in Jr. QB Mike Deaton who had performed heroically in relief against Tennessee the previous year; likewise, we had lost our excellent QB Ron Bass in '77 to graduation and now planned to start Soph. QB Gerry Harper of Hilaleah, FL. Fortunately, backing up Harper we had a quartet of top running backs in Jrs. Steve Dorsey and Spencer Clark, and Sophs. Jonnie Wright and George Rogers, plus a strong defense led by future NFL 1st rounder DB Rick Sanford.

So how can a tie be one of the greatest games in the series? I think there is a bit of a modern prejudice against ties; a tie was not considered as dissatisfying a black eye in the 1970s as it would be today. Also, the mood in Columbia before kickoff was pretty apprehensive - most of the USC faithful hoped we'd have a puncher's chance against the larger and stronger Kentucky squad with its suffocating defense; by all accounts Carolina fans and students were satisfied with the tie. And what a tie game it was. When the Gamecocks took the field against the Wildcats in front of a crowd of 55,000 at the Cockpit, they unveiled new, pro-style formations they had not shown at all against Furman. "They look like the Dallas Cowboys!" was the common refrain. The new-look offense caught the highly regarded UK defense completely by surprise and the Cocks dominated the first quarter statistically as Harper led us on two long drives - but which unfortunately yielded only two FGs by USC's K Eddie Leopard. As the second quarter began we led 6-0, and it looked like we might finally get a TD when Harper was intercepted on the Kentucky 1 yard line. UK's Deaton then marched his team 99 yards (catching us on a 42 yard screen pass that scored a TD) to take a 7-6 lead - which was the halftime score. Harper rallied USC in the third quarter, hitting TE Willie Scott for a passing TD, and then throwing to George Rogers for the two-point conversion on almost the identical play. Now it was 14-7 going into the fourth and that is when the fireworks began.

UK scored again to knot it up 14-14. Harper then threw his second INT at 9:19 to kill a promising drive; when we got the ball back, we drove down deep into Wildcat territory but missed a 37 yard FG. Deaton then drove UK down into Carolina territory close to FG range; it looked pretty grim until Deaton threw an INT of his own with 1:38 left. The Cocks could not get a first down and had to punt; on UK's last possession Deaton threw up a hail mary which we intercepted with five seconds left! The game ended in a tie, with both sides relieved they had not lost. Kentucky ended up 4-6-1; the Cocks ended 5-5-1. Sure, later in the season we had losses to perennial foes Duke, UNC, Georgia Tech, NC State and Clemson but we did beat # 19 UGA, and also Ole Miss. The tie kept us from a winning season, but also from a losing season, too. Maybe the biggest thing was that  it set the team up for the back-to-back eight win seasons 1979 and 1980 - with Rogers winning the Heisman Trophy in '80, capping one of the best two year stretches in Gamecock history up to that time.

3.    October 10, 2009 - Columbia [USC 28 - UK 26]

It was going to be a battle between two talented QBs - Mike Hartline of UK versus our Stephen Garcia. Phil Steele said USC had the toughest schedule in the nation that year, but and had started a strong 4-1 - which included a huge home win over #4 Ole Miss [our first victory over a Top 5 opponent in 28 years] and a tough 37-41 loss at UGA when Garcia was intercepted in the Bulldogs' end zone trying to thread the needle for a game winner. All in all, though, things looked good - we'd received our first ranking of the season (AP # 25) and our Ellis Johnson coached defense was rated third in the conference; we were also welcoming the 'Cats who USC had beaten the last eight meetings (and Spurrier had beaten 16 straight times) much to the Blue & White's chagrin. Kentucky, led by the steady and super competent Coach Rich Brooks, had started 2-2 - but the two losses had been shellings by #1 UF and # 3 Bama at Commonwealth the previous two weeks. Carolina fans must have been overconfident, hoping that Kentucky would roll over, because it was the smallest W-B crowd since the 1-10 1998 season with an announced gate of  just 62,278.

After UK opened with a FG, Garcia found Alshon Jeffery to take a 7-3 lead. But the USC 'D" looked sleepy and UK answered with a TD from Derrick Locke. Carolina countered with a Garcia-to-Jeffery one handed circus catch on a 28 yard TD pass; but UK then replied with a Randall Cobb receiving TD (Cobb had caught a 55 yarder earlier in the series). That left the score 17-14 at the half.  Following the break, Hartline went down with a knee sprain and left the game; we hoped we might put UK away at that point, especially after Alshon nabbed his third TD with 10:06 to go in the third. The Cats squandered an opportunity for a go-ahead FG when they called an ill-conceived fake to Cobb from our 6 yard line [which we stuffed]; alas on our ensuing possession, Garcia fumbled deep in our territory (I am pretty sure I remember he could/should have run out of bounds, but foolishly decided to go mano-y-mano with a Wildcat safety for extra yards). After a UK receiver dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass, Kentucky had to settle for a FG to make it  21-20 heading into the fourth. Garcia would redeem himself on a spectacular play where he hurdled (literally) over a UK DB for the go-ahead TD from the 1 [capping a long drive that featured two great runs by Kenny Miles] to make it 28-21. But, once again, the great Cobb would put his team on his back; after the ensuing kick-off, Cobb amassed a stupefying 75 yards in the series (22 return, 53 rush) and punched in another UK TD with just over 4 minutes to go. Our hearts were in our throats as Kentucky went for the two point conversion and the tie, but DE Cliff Matthews was the hero when he knocked down the pass from the UK QB. On the next series, Kenny Miles and Stephen Garcia then rushed for two first downs to kill the clock and cap a thrilling 28-26 win to take us to 5-1.

It was a pity we could not build more momentum off the victory - we would go on to lose 4 of our next 5 SEC games. A 34-17 beat down of Clemson got us to 7 wins to make the ill-fated Papa John's Bowl. For their part, Cobb and Hartline would have the opportunity for their epic revenge win in 2010 to snap the Cats' losing streak to Spurrier and USC. Maybe I could have picked the 54-3 blow-out in 2011 or the 44-16 shellacking in 2005. But the 2009 UK game makes the list for its drama and because, without it, we might have ended 6 and 6 and no bowl at all - which certainly could have hurt us with that great 2010 recruiting class which we would ride the next four years.

2.    October 7, 2000 @ Lexington [USC 20 - UK 17]

Since USC joined the league in 1992, there have been many opposing players we came to respect (e.g.,Tim Tebow and Cam Newton) and a few more that we respected and admired (Peyton Manning leaps to mind). But there was only one opponent that we've ever really loved and that was none other than Kentucky's Hefty Lefty, Jared Lorenzen. And how could you not love the big 300+ pounder from Ft. Thomas, Ky, especially when he was recruited by an offensive mastermind like Hal Mumme (the father of the Air Raid offense). Mumme was in his final season in Lexington; despite his brilliance, NCAA rules violations would catch up to him. Entering the game, however, the Cats were 2-3. Lou Holtz, of course, was in his second year at the helm in Columbia; the 0-11 disaster of 1999 had transformed into the miracle of 2000. The Cocks were sitting 5-1 with a victory over # 10 UGA under our belts; our only blemish a tough 10 point defeat at Tuscaloosa the week before. We had even held a ranking (AP # 23) - our first in nearly 7 years - when we met the Tide; now tied with UF for 1st in the SEC East, if we could get back in the W column we might once again enter the polls. Of course that would require an SEC road victory - a feat we had not managed in three seasons.

USC got off to a 10-7 lead in the first on the strength of a Ryan Bethea FG and a 44 yard TD pass from Phil Petty to Brian Scott, with UK notching a 2 yard TD run from Lorenzen in the first frame.  The second quarter belonged to UK as the big southpaw threw for a TD and set up a 21 yard Big Blue FG; we could only muster another FG of our own as the half ended to make it 17-13 UK heading into the halftime.  After the break, Lorenzen drove the Wildcats deep into USC territory before Carolina's Sheldon Brown intercepted a Wildcat pass and returned it to the UK 42; in the next play from scrimmage, Petty pitched the ball to Derek Watson who rumbled 58 yards for what would be the ultimate game winner. The victory moved us to bowl eligibility.  Even though we would go on to beat Vandy and Arkansas, and lose all three "Orange Crush," the '00 win over UK helped propel us to a miraculous 8-4 season capped by the first Outback Bowl when over the Buckeyes. We would face the Hefty Lefty - now coached by Rich Brooks - again the following two years. We blew the Cats out 42-6 in '02, but the 2002 match at Commonwealth was another classic (a 16-12 USC victory) that easily could have made this list, too. I did seriously mull over a "tie" but because the '00 season was more important than 2002 [UK was the last victory of '02, which we would finish 5-7 (3-5)], the first Lorenzen game is the one that makes this list.

1.    October 4, 2007 - Columbia  [USC 38 - UK 23]

Most of us do not remember the 2007 season that fondly.  A late-season swoon, which began with a mystifyingl offensive collapse and a near-loss at Chapel Hill, followed by home-loss to Vandy while we were the #6 team in the country, really put a damper on Steve Spurrier's fourth year with the Gamecocks. Then came four additional losses in the Orange Crush and Arkansas games [noticing a recurring theme?]; talk about falling from exalted heights to the lowest of lows. But there was one bright spot - a fifteen point win over the Wildcats led by QB Andre Woodson and coached by Rich Brooks now in his fifth season at the helm. Spurrier had rankled the Big Blue nation when he had quipped during the summer: "We thought we did something big beating Clemson then Ketucky beat them also."

Desperate to shut Darth Visor's mouth (and break his personal 14 game winning streak over UK dating back to his days in Gainesville), the 'Cats thought they had the team to do it in 2007: UK was 5-0 and ranked # 8 in the AP Poll, with victories over then #9 Louisville and Arkansas under their belts.  USC was 4-1 with the only loss coming on a visit to Baton Rouge against # 2 LSU, but counter-balanced with signature win over # 11 UGA at Athens a few weeks back.  It would be the first ever time that both schools would be ranked going into the game - a lot of Gamecock alums in the NFL had come back to watch the game (Sheldon Brown, Sydney Rice and Troy Williamson). "Deacon Dan" Reeves, who had been USC's star QB from 1960-1962 before a standout coaching career in the NFL at Denver, New York and Atlanta, flipped the coin. The atmosphere was electric.

The Wildcat fans who descended onto Columbia on that relatively cool, fall night were decked out in shirts that read "Believe the Hype" and they were bullish with Heisman talk for Woodson, who led an offense generating a national-best 46.6 points a game. Having lost starting LB Jasper Brinkley and DL Nathan Pepper to injuries, the USC "D" was a little thin and would be relying heavily on the disruptive and athletic hybrid DE/LB Eric Norwood; on the other side of the ball, our highly-recruited QB Chris Smelley had a strong backfield with RBs Corey Boyd and Mike Davis (the 1st) and FB Patrick DiMarco; all three could both catch and run. The late Kenny McKinley was our stand-out WR and we had a pair of awesome TE's in Jared Cook and Weslye Saunders.

It looked like we'd strike first blood as Smelley led us to the UK 35. A penalty pushed us back to the 50, but Smelley hit Saunders for a 48 yard pass down to the UK 20 before - disaster! - Saunders fumbled it.  Woodson trotted out to make us pay for the TO, only to be sacked on the 2nd play by Jonathan Williams and cough the rock up himself - which Norwood picked up for scoop-6.  Both squads would trade FGs to finish the 1st quarter (ours by the great Ryan Succop, Mr Irrelevant in the '09 NFL Draft). Later,  Woodson would find his form and lead the 'Cats on a TD drive to knot it up 10-10.  We could not capitalize on a Woodson INT but as time wore down before the half, Smelley led us on an epic drive starting at our own 11 to cap off a Mike Davis 3 yard TD to secure a 17-10 USC lead at the break.  In the third, UK was menacing again, but Woodson muffled a pitch and Norwood scooped it up for a 53 yard TD return - tying a NCAA record for most Defensive TDs at the time.  The Cats would muster just two FGs for the remainder of the third, but shut us down, too.  It was 24-16 going into the final frame and a Smelley TD pass to DiMarco put us up 31-16.  Woodson answered with a strong drive that ended in a Kentucky passing TD, but the Gamecocks answered right back when Smelley found Corey Boyd for a TD reception of our own with 3:28 left to seal a dramatic and surprising 38-23 win - the most momentous so far in the South Carolina-Kentucky rivalry.

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