South Carolina’s postseason pursuit will live on another week, as the Gamecocks beat the Kentucky Wildcats 17-14 at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night for the team's third-straight win.
The game was an overwhelmingly defensive affair, as neither team gained more than 300 yards or scored in more than two quarters.
South Carolina’s offense appeared mainly in the first and fourth quarters. The Gamecocks scored all 10 of its first half points on the first two drives, but would not get back to the end zone until the fourth quarter.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle,” redshirt senior quarterback Spencer Rattler said. “Obviously, we didn't have the complete game showing we wanted offensively tonight. Credit to Kentucky."
Trailing by 4 points during the first drive of the fourth quarter and with the offense in a drought, Rattler found fifth-year wide receiver Xavier Legette three times during the possession, including for the 17-yard score that ultimately won the game.
Rattler completed 11 of his 14 passes before halftime for 97 yards and a touchdown, hitting six Gamecock receivers in the process. He would finish with 207 passing yards, which vaulted him two spots higher on the school’s all-time passing yards leaderboard — ahead of Blake Mitchell and Connor Shaw. Rattler now ranks fifth in passing yards.
Legette, who was on the receiving end of both the first quarter score and the game-winning touchdown, carved his own place in the record books during the win. His 94 receiving yards elevated him to the second-highest single-season receiving total for a South Carolina wideout, trailing only Alshon Jeffrey’s 2010 season.
“At the end of the night, our two best players on offense made plays. That one catch, what a job by those two guys,” head coach Shane Beamer said.
Both defenses made a strong impact on the game as well.
Kentucky sophomore defensive lineman Deone Walker ended the game with nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, and the entire Wildcat defense slowed the Gamecocks to just 30 yards between the second and third quarters.
South Carolina’s defense made its impact with takeaways. Sophomore defensive back Nick Emmanwori made his first career interception as Kentucky threatened a second touchdown near the end of the first half. The Gamecocks also forced two fumbles, including one recovered by senior defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway to help seal the game.
“I just saw the ball go up, and I was like ‘Oh.’ My eyes got big and everything,” Hemingway said. “I really tried to return it, but I got tackled.”
Overall, the South Carolina defense held Kentucky to 293 yards and just 171 passing yards. Wildcat senior quarterback Devin Leary completed just half of his passes and had one touchdown to counter the interception thrown to Emmanwori.
“It's not just (that) we made some magical change,” Beamer said. “I think it's just guys having confidence in what they're doing and guys continuing to play well and get better, which is what we're doing as a football team right now.”
Beamer and the players said the nighttime crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium gave the team extra energy to play well and that the support will be important heading into the Palmetto Bowl next Saturday night.
“They were awesome. From the pregame, Gamecock Walk was amazing. The electricity in pregame warmups was awesome,” Beamer said. “There was a time there in the first quarter where I remember thinking to myself, 'This is the loudest I've heard this stadium since I've been the head football coach here.'”
South Carolina (5-6, 3-5 SEC) will go for its fourth-straight win and sixth overall — the requirement for bowl eligibility — when it hosts the Clemson Tigers (7-4, 4-4 ACC) next Saturday at 7:30 p.m.