Photo: Sarah Stone / The Daily Gamecock

Q&A with Kentucky Kernel sports editor Chris Leach

The South Carolina football team has lost three straight meetings with Kentucky. After starting the season 2-0 with impressive victories over NC State and Missouri, will this year's team break the streak? 

Kentucky Kernel sports editor Chris Leach covered Kentucky's home-opener against Eastern Kentucky and caught up with The Daily Gamecock sports staff to preview the upcoming matchup.

TDG: Kentucky's offense was slow to get going in the first half of Saturday's game against Eastern Kentucky. What were your observations from the offense as the game progressed? How do you think it will fare against South Carolina's "bend-don't-break" defense?

Chris Leach: "The main difference I noticed in the first and second half was the run game improvement. Benny Snell notched 100 of his 103 yards in the second half, and once the run game opened up, Stephen Johnson was given more time in the pocket to find open receivers. The offensive line, which has been a concern so far this season, also performed better in the second half, which helped open up the run game. If Kentucky can perform the way they did in the second half, I think they’ll hold-up well against South Carolina’s defense, but if they lean towards their first half tendencies, it could be ugly for the Cats." 

TDG: Can you explain Kentucky's quarterback situation between Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson and how you think it will play out against South Carolina? 

CL: "I envision that Stephen Johnson will be the starting quarterback for Kentucky for the rest of the season barring any drastic changes. Drew Barker played in two drives against Eastern Kentucky, both of which were three-and-outs. Johnson then came back in the next drive and led a touchdown drive. Head coach Mark Stoops said it was his plan all along to bring Barker in on the third drive to give him some experience, but Johnson showed that he’s the better quarterback right now and has earned the starting job." 

TDG: Defensively, Kentucky allowed Eastern Kentucky just 256 passing yards and 62 rushing yards, while forcing two turnovers. What are the keys to defending Jake Bentley and his playmaking offensive weapons, including Deebo Samuel, Rico Dowdle and Hayden Hurst? 

CL: "The key for Kentucky’s defense will be to keep doing what they’re doing, and that’s winning the turnover and limiting big plays. The Cats have forced five turnovers this season while only giving up one themselves. Against a good offense like South Carolina, limiting mistakes and keeping the score close can go a long way. Deebo Samuel worries me the most for his ability to make big plays out of nowhere. Samuel is also a good kick returner, where Kentucky has looked vulnerable at times. EKU’s top receiver also had a big game against Kentucky, so Samuel could be in line for a big game if Kentucky’s current trends continue."

TDG: Which players were standouts on Saturday? 

CL: "Aside from the obvious, on the offense, wide receiver Blake Bone had a good game. He only caught three passes, but those three passes were big plays that sparked the offense. Kentucky is a little thin at wide receiver after the injury to Dorian Baker, so Bone could have a big role moving forward. Running back Sihiem King is also someone who impressed backing up Benny Snell. On the defense, cornerback Lonnie Johnson has played well while Chris Westry finds his rhythm. Safety Darius West, who suffered a season-ending injury last season, leads Kentucky in tackles with 18 and has made some good plays in his two appearances." 

TDG: What is your prediction for the Kentucky-USC game and why?

CL: "Three weeks ago, I thought South Carolina would win, but it would be a closely contested game that could go either way. Now, I believe South Carolina will win this one pretty comfortably. If Kentucky can play the way they did in the second half against EKU, they will challenge South Carolina but we just haven’t seen the Cats play efficiently for four quarters yet, and I don’t think it will happen on the road in a hostile stadium. I think South Carolina will win 31-17."  

Kickoff for the Gamecocks' home-opener is 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 

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