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Cats make strides in South Carolina loss, but still seeking complete game

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UK blocks a South Carolina punt to set up a touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 17-7 first-half lead. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK blocks a South Carolina punt to set up a touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 17-7 first-half lead. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the last few weeks, Joker Phillips has been adamant that he has an improving football team. The results the last two weekends may have suggested otherwise, but Phillips believed his young bunch was taking steps forward.

For 30 minutes, the fans in Commonwealth Stadium and a national television audience saw what he was talking about.

Kentucky raced out to a 17-7 halftime lead on sixth-ranked South Carolina, outgaining the visiting Gamecocks and running the ball effectively against one of the best defensive teams in the country.

"We played with great effort," Phillips said. "Our guys played with great effort. I tell you, I think they have all year. We've played with enthusiasm. The thing we did was play with total focus."

The goal coming out of the halftime locker room was to sustain that focus, but that proved to be too tall a task. The Gamecocks scored 31 unanswered points in the second half to defeat the Wildcats 38-17 and move to 5-0 on the season. UK, meanwhile, falls to 1-4. Bruising South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore headlined the comeback, rushing for 108 of his 120 yards and both his touchdowns after intermission.

"It just kind of felt like it was slipping away," said Cody Quinn, one the many true freshmen being asked to play featured roles. "Defensively, we made a few mistakes. They started to run the ball more, but we just got to pick it up and keep fighting. It's a 60-minute game. We can't let up."

Had UK held onto to its 10-point lead, it would have been the biggest upset of the young college football season, but it was surprise enough that the Cats had the lead in the first place.

After the UK defense forced a three-and-out on the game's first possession, Maxwell Smith - returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him last week against Florida - was sacked on Kentucky's second play from scrimmage by Byron Jerideau, who rolled up on Smith's ankle. The sophomore quarterback stayed down with an ankle injury and would not return. X-rays were negative, but Smith's status for next week against Mississippi State is unknown.

"Losing Max on the second play like that was a huge blow I think to everybody's psyche, but they kept fighting and kept competing and we had a chance," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.

The Cats turned to Jalen Whitlow with Smith out. The true freshman played the fourth quarter against Florida, but Saturday marked his first collegiate snaps with the outcome still in doubt. He was welcomed rudely by Aldrick Fordham, who sacked him on his first play, but he settled in from there.

After the Kentucky defense had its most impressive stand of the season, stuffing Connor Shaw on back-to-back quarterback sneaks from the one-yard line on third and fourth down, Whitlow took the offense on the field with 99 yards to go and they very nearly went the whole way. The Cats converted a pair of long third downs in their own territory - including an electrifying 13-yard Whitlow scramble in the shadow of his own goalpost - before settling for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead and score Kentucky's first first-quarter points of the season.

"I kept telling him over and over and over, 'Your main job is to run the team, take care of the football, run the team, take care of the football,' " Sanders said. "And I thought for most of the game, he did a decent job of that. We ran some plays I've never seen before and the crazy thing was he was able to scramble and make some plays on a few of them."

Carolina would score a touchdown to retake the lead, but Whitlow would guide back-to-back touchdown drives - the second of which was set up when freshmen DeMarcus Sweat, A.J. Legree and Daron Blaylock combined to block a punt - to give UK a 17-7 lead. Whitlow and the offense would get an opportunity to extend the lead even further when the defense stuffed yet another fourth down, but the half expired after Whitlow fumbled on a third-and-goal sack.

"I think that was a momentum swing," Phillips said. "It was. It was a huge momentum swing. We got the ball back in the second half. I think it would have definitely helped if we got some points out of that."

While the UK coaches were making minor adjustments and talking about sustaining effort at halftime, the Gamecocks changed their game plan on the fly. Steve Spurrier elected to go to a power running game on offense while the defense ratcheted up the pressure on Whitlow. After he was sacked just twice in the first half, he was taken down four times in the second. Defensive end Devin Taylor - who stands at 6-foot-8, got credit for one and a half.

"I played against guys big and fast (in high school), but not really 6-8 and can catch you from behind," Whitlow said.

Sanders said during practice this week he is comfortable calling approximately 10 percent of the playbook with Whitlow in the game. During the first half, he was able to stick to that tenth. But with South Carolina retaking the lead with 4:56 left in the third quarter and making it a two-score game less than 10 minutes later, that changed.

"You could see there at the end when we got behind and I had to get out of that 10 percent that I thought he was comfortable with what happened," Sanders said.

Whitlow and his teammates would rather forget about what happened the second stanza and focus on the first, but there's no such thing as a half-win. Nonetheless, since they are such a young team, the Cats have to take positives where they can find them.

"Jalen Whitlow, he looked nice out there and A.J. Legree," Quinn said. "We got a whole bunch of freshmen and sophomores. You can take a positive from that. We got to just keep working and keep getting better each week."

In light of that youth, baby steps is an appropriate word for a team that played well during the first quarter against Florida and played 15 more good minutes on Saturday night.

"Last week it was one quarter pretty darn good," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "This week was a half. Maybe we're headed toward a complete game. Until we put together four quarters, it's going to be hard for our team to win."

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