Kentucky proving worthy contender in SEC

Kentucky defensive players Derrick Baity (8), Lonnie Johnson (6) and Josh Allen (41) celebrate a big play during the Wildcats’ win over South Carolina Saturday night. (Kentucky Today, Bill Thiry) -

LEXINGTON – Kentucky is legit. The Wildcats proved it yet again Saturday night with a 24-10 win over South Carolina. However, there wasn’t much celebrating in the locker room.

That’s because the 17th-ranked Wildcats (5-0, 2-0) know they haven’t played their best football to date despite opening the season with five consecutive victories for the first time since 2007. The stack of wins also includes three straight Southeastern Conference wins to open the season, a feat that hasn’t happened since 1977.

“It did feel a little different in there,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “They truly expect to do that. Honestly, I think we all feel a little like we left a lot out there (on the field).”

There were a few smiles and high fives, however, but not like the celebrations that ensued after the Wildcats defeated Florida and Mississippi State earlier this season. The biggest celebration occurred after the Wildcats defeated Florida in Gainesville, ending a 31-game losing streak to the Gators.

“We celebrated (after beating South Carolina), but it wasn’t as usual because we didn’t play up to our standards,” Kentucky senior Derrick Baity said. “It was a little frustrating (the way we finished) for the team, but as a team, we got a team win and that’s all that matters. We’re a special team and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

No player on the current Kentucky squad has been a part of five straight wins to open the season, but they know the accomplishment Is no small feat considering the Wildcats haven’t won five consecutive victories to open the season since 2007.

“It was frustrating but It was overall good for us,” Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad said. “We have a lot we can go into (practice with) on Monday and we can correct. It’s a good feeling but we know there’s a lot of stuff to work on — 5-0 football is exciting. It’s nice to have a lot of things to work on when you’re winning.

“It’s an amazing feeling, especially since I don’t feel like we’ve played out best football yet. The defense is playing unbelievable, but offensively there is so much more out there for us. … our best football is ahead of us.”

Kentucky did all of its scoring in the first half and failed to muster a point in the final two quarters, but that wasn’t a concern for the Wildcats, especially standout running back Benny Snell.

“It’s not that frustrating,” Snell said. “We’re 5-0. I’m happy and I’m proud of this team. We definitely could have finished a lot stronger, but usually, in our previous games, we finished in the second half. This game was just a little different. We’ve got to keep the guys up, go in the film (room) and make changes.”

The Wildcats made up for it on defense, forcing a fumble and three interceptions, including two in the second half to fend off a pair of failed late surges by South Carolina, capping another impressive performance by Kentucky’s defense this season.

“It felt good to make the interceptions tonight because all week we just kept hearing about how skilled they were and this and that about them,” Baity said. “I feel like we weren’t getting enough credit for what we’ve done this season. We just heard all the hype about (South Carolina). We took advantage of it and got the ball.”

From the outside looking in, Conrad has been impressive by the performance of Kentucky’s defense, which has allowed just 33 points against league foes this season, the lowest in the first three league games in more than four decades.

“They really shocked me and they’ve been really impressive, especially stopping the run,” Conrad said. “That defensive line and our linebackers are playing unbelievable. I knew our secondary was really talented. I knew were really going to be good defensively, but we’ve been really impressed so far and it’s been awesome to see. They’ve had our back and it’s been great to see.”

In addition to the clutch interceptions, Kentucky had four pass breakups and four sacks, including three by senior linebacker Josh Allen. Allen created havoc for the South Carolina offense and didn’t allow quarterback Jake Bentley to get into a rhythm, especially during the final quarter.

“It is amazing the I get to see and watch what he does,” Snell said. “He is so great in the defensive side He always tells me, ‘I’m going to match you.’ He outmatched me today.”

Although the Wildcats were an underdog at one point earlier this week, Snell said the Wildcats weren’t worried about the lack of respect.

“We focus on Kentucky football,” Snell said. “We’re not worried about what other people say, what ranking is what because we know what we can do and it shows on the field.”

Snell also knows Kentucky can’t become complacent with seven more games remaining in the regular season.

“When we get a big win, I always tell the guys we’ve got to have a short memory,” he said. “How fast we got (to 5-0) is how fast we could lose it.”

Kentucky defensive players Derrick Baity (8), Lonnie Johnson (6) and Josh Allen (41) celebrate a big play during the Wildcats’ win over South Carolina Saturday night. (Kentucky Today, Bill Thiry) defensive players Derrick Baity (8), Lonnie Johnson (6) and Josh Allen (41) celebrate a big play during the Wildcats’ win over South Carolina Saturday night. (Kentucky Today, Bill Thiry)