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Cats Take a Punch, Move to 3-0 Anyway


The start was nothing short of disastrous.
On South Carolina's first play from scrimmage, Kentucky let the one player the Wildcats knew they couldn't let beat them -- Deebo Samuel -- get loose for a 68-yard touchdown. On UK's own second play, Stephen Johnson tossed an interception right back to the Gamecocks.
In a raucous road environment, a rout seemed possible. In fact, it might have been likely in the recent past.
Not this time. Not with this team.
"We took a shot right on the chin to start the game, place was going wild and we embraced it," Mark Stoops said. "We took the shot and went right back to work. That doesn't even faze us and that's what I love about this team."
Rather than folding in front of 82,493 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium, the Cats weathered the storm – and the "Sandstorm." After falling behind 6-0, UK scored 20 unanswered points and later added a game-clinching field goal in the final minutes to claim a 23-13 win. The victory is the fourth straight for UK against South Carolina and, more importantly, moves the Cats to 3-0 on the season.
"It means a lot," Johnson said. "It's definitely going to help our confidence knowing that we can go into tough games, go into tough environments and win a really critical game."
UK has proven its ability to do exactly that time and time again since Johnson took over at quarterback. The Cats are now 10-3 in regular-season games with Johnson as their primary quarterback, including three straight victories on the road.
"He's a winner," Stoops said. "He's a winner. He makes plays when you have to."
Johnson led UK to successful conversions on eight of its first 10 third downs. The Cats missed on their next four, but then Johnson snapped off a back-breaking 54-yard run on third-and-eight. He slid at the South Carolina 10-yard line, which helped UK bleed crucial seconds from the clock and ultimately set up Austin MacGinnis' third made field goal in as many tries.
"It just seemed like they evacuated the middle," Johnson said. "It was almost like a two-man situation, so nobody had me and accounted for me. As soon as everybody went out, I just took it up the middle."
After that early interception, Johnson avoided major mistakes and worked in tandem with a potent ground game, which rolled up 184 yards behind Benny Snell's 102-yard, two-touchdown performance.
"I thought our team was unbelievably smart," Stoops said. "We took shots when we had to take shots. We played it tight to the vest when we had to play tight to the vest. We used the clock. We got important first downs. We got aggravating run yards, even early in the game. Churning out the clock, churning out first downs, aggravating the heck out of them. I know, because I hate it when it happens to us."
The thing is, it didn't happen all that often to UK on Saturday night.
The Cats had been stout against the run in wins over Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky, but the question remained: How would they hold up in their first Southeastern Conference test? Pretty well, it turns out, because UK allowed a season-low 54 rushing yards on 20 carries.
"Our defense battled in there and kept us in the game early on," Stoops said. "Fourth-down stops, same thing. Those are just sheer guts and determination. Guys are playing better up front. We have guys that are making better plays and those were big stops."
The stops came from all over, including Jordan Jones' replacement Eli Brown and Jamar Watson, who came on in place of a cramping Brown in the fourth quarter. The transformation of UK's defense is certainly encouraging, but the Cats haven't arrived by any means. Don't let a little postgame elation fool you on that front.
"It doesn't mean that there's not a lot of things that we gotta get better at," Stoops said. "It doesn't mean that we're not deficient in certain areas. We're going to have to continue to get better as the season goes on, but their work ethic is right, their attitude is right. They have a winning attitude and they can take a punch, that's for sure."
That's important, because plenty more punches are coming.
"It's a grind," Stoops said. "We gotta strap it up and play Florida next week. It's never easy, but we love it that way. We want to continue to play with a little edge, a little chip on our shoulder and we got our work cut out for us next week, but it'll be a lot of fun."      






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