3 takeaways: Nothing goes right for No. 13 Kentucky football in loss to South Carolina

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The injury news was bad. The start was worse. 

And with starting quarterback Will Levis sidelined, the offensive line shorthanded and its special teams still sloppy, the Kentucky football team on Saturday night needed its defense to be nearly perfect against South Carolina. 

It wasn’t, and as a result, the Gamecocks toppled No. 13 Kentucky 24-14 at Kroger Field. 

Levis sat with a foot injury, entering the stadium and hobbling around the field pregame in a walking boot. Kaiya Sheron started at quarterback for Kentucky (4-2, 1-2 SEC) — his first career start, in a game in which he threw his first collegiate pass — and his debut could scarcely have gotten off to a worse beginning. 

The Wildcats attempted a reverse on the first play of the game, Sheron handing off to running back Chris Rodriguez, who was supposed to hand to wide receiver Barion Brown. But UK botched that exchange, and the result was a Rodriguez fumble that the Gamecocks recovered at the UK 17-yard line and returned to the 2. 

South Carolina (4-2, 1-2) scored on its first play, a sign of some ugly things to come for Kentucky. 

Though UK tied the game in the second quarter, its offense rarely got in a rhythm with Sheron — he finished 15 of 27 passing for 178 yards, two touchdowns and a fourth-quarter interception — and struggled to sustain drives. 

And its defense — so often a saving grace this season with the offense lacking consistency — looked flat-footed in a second half South Carolina dominated. 

How things unraveled:Live score updates, video highlights from Wildcats' second straight loss

Here are three takeaways from Kentucky’s second straight loss:

Chris Rodriguez revs up, offense sputters

Kentucky’s Chris Rodriquez Jr. gets a first down against South Carolina.
Oct. 8, 2022

With its starting quarterback out and its backup shaky, Kentucky mostly did what you’d expect. It handed the ball to its star running back and hoped for the best. 

Often he delivered, carrying 22 times for 126 yards (5.7 yards per carry). Rodriguez had 16 carries for 97 yards in the first half, ripping off runs of 12, 13, 18 and 20 yards before halftime. 

Ole Miss loss analysis:Kentucky football's offense is falling short. Barion Brown, Chris Rodriguez provide hope

But even with Levis on the field the UK offense has struggled to impose its will this season. Without the threat of his passing, Rodriguez’s running wasn’t enough. The offensive line, up and down through the first five games, was down a starter, with Deondre Buford in for Jerry Flax at right tackle. 

And though it opened holes for Rodriguez, pass protection remained an issue for UK. Sheron sometimes held the ball too long, but — much as Levis has been this season — he was frequently under fire from a pass rush. The Gamecocks, who came into the game with just four sacks all season, got to Sheron six times.

Kentucky’s average third-down distance was 10.9 yards, and it was 3 for 12 on third down.

Meet Kaiya Sheron:Redshirt freshman QB makes first start against Gamecocks

Defense falters in second half against Spencer Rattler

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler looks for an open receiver during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Despite its offensive and special-teams struggles, Kentucky stayed in the game in the first half on the strength of a stalwart defensive performance.

The second half was a different story. 

South Carolina got the Kentucky defense on its heels after halftime. Quarterback Spencer Rattler was more effective on the move, and UK’s tackling was less crisp — and less consistent — than in the first half. The Gamecocks got playmakers in space, and the Cats struggled to get off the field. 

After converting 2 of 6 third downs in the first half, the Gamecocks were 4 for 7 on third down in the second. And though he struggled for much of the first half, Rattler was spectacular on third down in the game, completing 7 of 9 third-down passes for 94 yards, picking up five first downs. He finished the night 14 of 19 for 177 yards, a touchdown and a pick.

Looking to improve:Why Chris Rodriguez is 'past' his 4-game absence, not yet up to speed

While the injury spotlight was on Levis, Kentucky had significant health developments at linebacker, where Jacquez Jones missed Saturday’s game and J.J. Weaver returned, playing for the first time since early in a Sept. 17 win against Youngstown State. 

Weaver had an impact in his return — he had four tackles and a fumble recovery in the first half — but was just one of a host of defenders who made key plays. 

Tyrell Ajian’s first-quarter sack of Rattler forced the fumble Weaver recovered. Trevin Wallace intercepted a Rattler pass at the UK 13-yard line with 37 seconds left in the second quarter to preserve a 7-7 tie at halftime. 

UK special teams woes continue 

South Carolina defensive lineman Zacch Pickens (6), defensive lineman T.J. Sanders (90) and defensive back Darius Rush (28) celebrate after a block of a Kentucky punt during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

At times this week, Mark Stoops defended his special teams, noting that despite its struggles in the kicking game in a loss at Ole Miss the previous week, UK had been dynamic in the return game. 

But the Cats coach conceded the kicking game miscues against the Rebels — a missed field goal; a blocked extra point and a snap mishap on another — were “kind of embarrassing.” 

The return game was quiet against South Carolina. 

The kicking game had some similar noisy errors. 

Chasing perfection:Matt Ruffolo's goal is perfection. UK's kicker knows heated tweets will come after misses

Kicker Matt Ruffolo missed a 45-yard field-goal try off the left upright in the first quarter off what appeared to be a bad snap and hurried hold. And UK’s Colin Goodfellow had a first-quarter punt blocked, setting up South Carolina at the Kentucky 22-yard line. UK escaped damage when Weaver recovered the Spencer fumble.

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson and bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.