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UK shows evidence of changing culture in near-comeback

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Jalen Whitlow accounted for 247 yards and three touchdowns in nearly leading UK to a comeback win at South Carolina. (Jeff Blake, USA Today Sports) Jalen Whitlow accounted for 247 yards and three touchdowns in nearly leading UK to a comeback win at South Carolina. (Jeff Blake, USA Today Sports)
For fans watching the start of Kentucky's game at South Carolina, it was a worst-case scenario.

The Gamecocks raced out to a 21-0 lead, rolling up 228 yards just two plays into the second quarter. The sell-out crowd in Williams-Brice Stadium was rocking and memories of UK's 54-3 defeat the last time the Wildcats visited Columbia, S.C., resurfaced.

Mark Stoops, however, was steady. Of course he was frustrated with the way his team had played, but the scenario was not wholly unexpected.

"Things played out about how they thought they would," Stoops said. "We knew - and we talked about it all week - that they would start fast here at home. A team that can get you off balance and strike very quickly, they did that early."

Taking a cue from their coach, the Cats were undeterred.

UK mounted a spirited rally, outscoring South Carolina 28-14 over the final 44:20. Twice the Cats climbed to within a single score in the fourth quarter, but the comeback bid was finally foiled when the Gamecocks picked up a pair of first downs on their final drive to salt away the 35-28 win.

Stoops has little interest in moral victories, but even he couldn't help but be pleased by the way his team responded to the largest deficit it has faced all season.

"I was proud of our team because we did talk about it and prepare for it and if they did, we would stay in there and not flinch, take their best shot and battle back and have an opportunity to make plays in the fourth quarter to win the game," Stoops said. "I was proud of the fact that we were in position to do that and very frustrated that we did not do that."

The play weighing most on his mind was a third-and-3 on South Carolina's final drive. Stoops expected a read-option with Connor Shaw potentially handing to Mike Davis, so the Cats blitzed. Davis got the ball and appeared hemmed in, but managed five yards to prolong the possession and keep the ball away from Jalen Whitlow and the suddenly hot UK offense.

For the first time this season, UK used a single quarterback from start to finish and the change paid dividends. With Jalen Whitlow running the show, the Cats had some early hiccups on offense. Stoops, however, resisted the urge to make a switch to Maxwell Smith.

"I gotta admit: I was thinking about some things in the middle of the game," Stoops said. "I said, 'No, let's go with it and see where we're at.' "

Whitlow and the young group of skill players surrounding him rewarded their coach's patience.

UK scored touchdowns on each of its final three drives, rolling up 191 yards of total offense on 25 plays. Whitlow was proficient as both a passer and runner, completing 17-of-24 passes for 178 yards, running for 69 more, accounting for three total touchdowns and flashing the kind of ability that makes his presence so intriguing.

"With that dimension, it does add some things," Stoops said. "That was good to see. Now you start putting some real stress on the defense when you can do our normal offense and try to pick up the tempo and with the way that we try to stretch the field with the passing game and all the options that (offensive coordinator) Neal (Brown) can do with a guy that can run the ball, it could be a good threat."

Whitlow's emergence is certainly encouraging for the short-term future of Kentucky football, but Saturday night's performance could be even more meaningful in the long term.

Just three days ago, Stoops was fuming after his team's worst practice since the new staff's arrival. He minced no words, saying his team would likely be blown out if the Cats played the way they practiced on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, the fact that they turned around and went toe to toe with a team that still harbors national-championship aspirations on the road did not surprise Stoops.

"I thought they responded after the disappointment throughout the week in our preparation and they responded and came back with great effort and passion," Stoops said. "We all can do things better, as a coaching staff and as players. We're all in this together and we all need to do what we need to do to make plays at the end of this game to win."

That's all part of the process to which Stoops so often refers.

Establishing Kentucky as a player on the national scene will take time, but Saturday night served notice that Stoops has his program on the right track.

"We in that locker room are changing a culture and I believe that," Stoops said. "... We need to do things better as a whole organization. Starting with myself and the coaching and all the players, we know can do better. But I believe the culture is changing. I thought that was evident tonight."

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