COLUMBIA -- It was all supposed to come to an end on Saturday night.
The University of South Carolina's string of three consecutive football losses to Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rival Kentucky and the sting associated with that streak was to be erased by a victory in front of a sold out Williams-Brice Stadium crowd on a Blackout night to open the 2017 home slate.
Sadly, not only did the Gamecocks come up short in a 23-13 loss to the Wildcats but also lost the services of star wide receiver and kick return specialist Deebo Samuel for perhaps the rest of the season with a broken leg. Samuel had surgery on his fractured leg on Sunday and head coach Will Muschamp said he will miss an extended period of time after saying on Saturday that Samuel was done for the season.
The game got off to a great start, with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Jake Bentley to Samuel, who finished with five receptions for 122 yards, on the first play from scrimmage. A miss on the extra point attempt by Alexander Woznick, breaking the program's string of 164 consecutive successful kicks, left USC up 6-0 after the 13-second drive.
Two plays later, Skai Moore intercepted a Stephen Johnson pass, giving the Gamecocks the ball at the Wildcats' 39 just 48 seconds into the game. Presented with an opportunity to break the game open early, USC's offense failed to get a first down and the Gamecocks ended with no points as Parker White was wide on a 52-yard field goal attempt.
Kentucky's next possession also ended in a turnover, with Jamyest Williams recovering a fumble at the Wildcats' 38. This time the Gamecocks not only failed to get a first down but also handed the ball back four plays later as a scrambling Bentley threw an interception to Mike Edwards, with Kentucky taking over at its own 15.
Those two failures to capitalize on Kentucky turnovers were unfortunately a sign of things to come as the Gamecock offense would not score again until Bentley connected with wide receiver OrTre Smith on a 9-yard touchdown pass, the first of Smith's USC career, with 6:26 to go in the game.
"Offensively we (couldn't) get anything going," said disappointed USC head coach Will Muschamp, whose team fell to 2-1 overall and 1-1 in the SEC. "We had a hard time in short yardage (and) we were unable to convert a one-yard run on two separate occasions."
Those two occasions both came in the second half, the first with 10:54 to go in the third and the second with 14:26 left in the game. USC trailed 14-6 when running back A.J. Turner was stopped twice for no gain from the UK 49. From there, the Wildcats would drive for a 27-yard field goal and a 17-6 lead.
The second instance came with Carolina still down by the same score. Bentley rushed for three yards, coming up just short at the 1 on a jumping attempt for the end zone. Muschamp decided to go for six points instead of three on fourth down, but running back Rico Dowdle, who managed just 23 yards rushing on eight attempts, was stopped short of the goal.
UK would fail to get a first down from there, giving the Gamecocks the ball at the 33 after a punt from deep in their own end zone. Once again, the offense could not gain a first down, forcing an unsuccessful 42-yard Woznick field goal attempt.
"(We) just (weren't) efficient on our carries," said Turner, who closed with a net of 12 yards on five carries. "We got some right plays called. For me on third and fourth down, I had one yard to go and I just didn't get it, so sometimes you have to be more efficient and do all we can to get more yards."
With the Gamecocks trailing 20-13 after Smith's touchdown, the defense allowed Johnson to break free for a 54-yard run on a third-and-8 to set up Kentucky's third field goal of the second half. Two plays later, a Derrick Baity interception of a Bentley pass would end the Gamecocks' final hope of a late rally.
Moore, who ranks second in program history with 12 career interceptions, still has confidence in the offense to be able to take advantage of turnovers, even though it didn't happen on this night.
"We hope that we can capitalize on turnovers," said Moore, who finished with seven tackles, including six solo stops, to move to ninth in school history with 164 unassisted tackles. "That's what we preach every day, to get the ball back to our offense so we can score. The offense was having a rough night, but I'm confident in our offense and I'm pretty sure we'll be able to bounce back and do a lot better in the next couple of weeks."
Trailing 14-6, the Gamecocks had a chance to score late in the half, but a delay of game penalty cost them five yards and negated what would have been a 49-yard field goal for White, who was wide right from 54 yards as time expired.
The first half ended with Kentucky gaining 14 first downs to Carolina's six, though the total yardage was only 202-186 in favor of the Wildcats.
Bentley, who completed 16 consecutive passes after connecting on just two of his first nine aerials, ended 24-for-36 for 304 yards as the Gamecocks outgained the Wildcats 358-353 in total yardage.
"We just have to go back, regroup and just go attack next week. That's all you can do now," said Bentley as the Gamecocks prepare to face Louisiana Tech on Saturday. "You can't sit here and dwell on the negatives. We are going to go home and watch the film and get better from it. It's a long season. This game is not going to determine outcomes later in the season, so we just have to keep pushing."