COLUMBIA - One great play - the first one of the game from scrimmage - and that was pretty much it for the University of South Carolina in its football game against Kentucky on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Quarterback Jake Bentley connected with wide receiver Deebo Samuel for a 68-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game, but it was all downhill from there as the Gamecocks suffered a disappointing 23-13 loss to the Wildcats in front of a sellout crowd on an all-black attire night.
It was the fourth straight victory for UK over Carolina. Kentucky improved to 3-0 on the season in its Southeastern Conference opener. USC, which opened the season with wins over North Carolina State in Charlotte and at Missouri, fell to 2-1 and 1-1.
"I'm extremely disappointed with that performance," said USC head coach Will Muschamp. "With as good of a night as our fans and our administration set up for us, to go out and play like that, I feel like it's my responsibility.
"It's extremely disappointing to play the first two ball games pretty clean, and we jump off sides four to five times, we missed three field goals. We just didn't play well."
Even worse for USC, Samuel broke his leg making a catch in the third quarter and is out for the season, according to Muschamp.
Kentucky refused to even entertain the idea of kicking it deep to Samuel, who had kickoff returns for touchdowns in each of the first two games, on the opening kickoff. The Wildcats chose to kick it short and South Carolina had to start at its 32-yard line. So what did the Gamecocks do? Go to Samuel, of course.
The junior wide receiver was lined up on the left side with UK cornerback Derrick Baity in man coverage. Quarterback Jake Bentley hit Samuel on a slant around the 45, and Samuel outran Baity to the end zone for a touchdown just 13 seconds into the contest. Alexander Woznick missed the extra point to leave the score 6-0.
USC missed two golden opportunities to take control of the game early, forcing turnovers in Wildcat territory on their first two possessions but not being able to score either time.
Carolina linebacker Skai Moore intercepted quarterback Stephen Johnson and returned it 17 yards to the Kentucky 39. South Carolina could only pick up four yards and Parker White missed a 52-yard field goal wide right.
On the Wildcats' next possession, a high snap to Johnson caused a fumble that cornerback Jamyest Williams recovered at the Kentucky 38. USC could do nothing on the first two plays and Bentley was intercepted on third down.
"We had our opportunities early, and we didn't convert," Muschamp said. "It's disappointing. Give Kentucky credit for winning the game."
Carolina forced a punt following the Bentley interception, but the Wildcats had no problems on the next two possessions though. They went 75 yards on 13 plays, taking 6:33 off the clock. They followed it with an 11-play, 67-yard drive that sucked off 5:32 of the clock.
The first drive ended with running back Benny Snell Jr. taking a direct snap and running it in from five yards out with 1:05 left in the first quarter. Austin MacGinnis added the extra point to make it 7-6.
Snell ran it in from a yard out to cap the other drive to make it 14-6 with 8:37 left in the first half.
"I don't know if it was gashing us," Muschamp said of the UK running game. "It was bleeding us out. Third down was the issue. If you asked me at halftime, I would've said it didn't hurt. Third down killed us in the first half. We couldn't get our defense off the field and we couldn't get our offense on the field."
USC picked up its second first down of the game - the first came on the Samuel TD pass - when running back A.J. Turner had runs of eight and five yards on the first two plays of the ensuing drive. The possession ended with Carolina punting from the UK 36.
South Carolina got the ball back one final time and reached the Kentucky 32 with five seconds left and set up to try a 49-yard field goal by Parker White. The Gamecocks were flagged for a delay of game and White ended up wide right on a 54-yard attempt.
USC stopped the Wildcats after one first down on their first possession of the second half, forcing a punt. The Gamecocks got a first down before Bentley connected with tight end Hayden Hurst for eight yards to midfield. Running back Rico Dowdle picked up a yard and was injured on the play. Turner came in and was stuffed for no gain twice as UK took over at its 49.
"They whipped us up front," Muschamp said. I was extremely disappointed in that, and I didn't feel like we were able to get it going in the second half. We tried to pick up the tempo offensively and start throwing the ball."
USC had just 54 rushing yards on 20 carries. Dowdle had eight carries for 23 yards, Bentley seven for 19 and Turner five for 12. Former Crestwood High School standout Ty'Son Williams didn't get a carry for the second time in three games. He rushed for 78 yards on 14 carries against Missouri last week.
Carolina managed to limit Kentucky to a 27-yard field goal by MacGinnis with the short field to make it 17-6. However, the Wildcats had the ball for 12 plays and took another 5:29 off the clock.
The Gamecocks followed up with their best drive of the game, going 70 yards on 14 plays. Williams was on the field for most of the drive, and while not getting a carry, he did have two catches for seven yards.
However, when Carolina found itself facing third and goal to start the fourth quater. Dowdle was on the field. After Bentley picked up three yards to make it fourth down from the 1, Dowdle was stopped short.
"We just weren't having any luck running the ball in the second half," Muschamp said when asked about Williams not getting any carries. "He did have a couple of catches there for us."
UK couldn't manage a yard on its posession and had to punt. A 12-yard return by Chris Lammons set Carolina up at the Kentucky 33 with 13:15 left in the game. Bentley threw an 8-yard completion on first down followed by two incompletions. Waznick was very short on a 42-yard field goal attempt.
The Wildcats drove to the Carolina 26 before settling for a 44-yard field goal from MacGinnis to make it 20-6 with 8:59 left.
South Carolina finally got back in the end zone, going 77 yards in seven plays. Bentley connected with wide receiver OrTre Smith for a 9-yard TD pass on fourth down with 6:26 left. White added the extra point to make it 20-13. It was Smith's first collegiate catch and touchdown.
USC had the Wildcats facing third and eight at the UK 36 when Johnson broke off a 54-yard run to the USC 9. MacGinnis kicked a 21-yard field goal with 2:07 left to make it 23-13.
Bentley finished 24 for 36, completing 16 straight passes at one point, for 304 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions. Ten different players had catches. Samuel and Bryan Edwards both had five catches, Samuel for 122 and Edwards for 57.
Johnson completed 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards and rushed for 74 yards on seven carries. Snell finished with 102 yards and both of Kentucky's TDs on 32 carries.