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Stoops not expecting an easy task in Cats’ first road game of season

Mark Stoops and the Wildcats struggled in last week’s narrow win over Tennessee Chattanooga at Kroger Field. (Keith Taylor/Kentucky Today)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mark Stoops isn’t expecting things to be easy when Kentucky visits South Carolina Saturday.

Although the Wildcats (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) have won six of the past seven games between the two SEC East rivals, including a dominating 41-18 victory last year in Lexington, things are different in Columbia this season.

The Gamecocks (2-1) have a new coach in Shane Beamer and is not the same squad that limped into Kroger Field last season with an interim coach and a future of uncertainty.

“(They were), down a lot of guys, a coaching change in the middle of the season, (they had) guys opting out and not playing. Very different,” Stoops said earlier this week. “This is the front end, so everyone is trying to prove themselves, and there’s great energy, very fundamentally sound in all areas. So, they’re very motivated.”

Kentucky won its opener with ease, but held on to beat Missouri in its conference opener and had a harder-than-expected 28-23 victory over Tennessee Chattanooga a week ago. Saturday will be Kentucky’s first true road game in front of a packed stadium in two years and Stoops is expecting a sellout in the Gamecocks’ SEC home opener. South Carolina began league play with a 40-13 setback at Georgia last Saturday.

“It’s always a fun game, very challenging, definitely a great environment down there on the road,” Stoops said. “They’re doing a very good job, Coach (Shane) Beamer with the change. You can see the energy and the excitement down there. They’re playing very good football and we’re looking forward to the challenge of going down there and playing them, trying to get another SEC East victory. It’s a big game for us.”

Stoops added that emulating the environment, including the crowd, was a point of emphasis this week, but didn’t want to spend too much time on the road environment. In the team’s last visit to Columbia in 2019, the Wildcats dropped a 24-7 decision.

“They just need to understand that ‘hey if we get hit on the chin, you gotta stand back up and play the next play.’ So, we talk about it, make them aware but I don’t need to over-do it,” Stoops said.

Beamer, son of longtime Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, has been impressed with Kentucky’s new-look offense under Liam Coen and is aware of the team’s ability to make big gains in the passing game.

“Offensively, they are explosive,” Beamer said. “I think they are second in the country in explosive pass plays. There’s no throw on the field that (Will Levis) can’t make”

Stoops added the Gamecocks are “similar to us in some ways.”

“You see some under center, you see the run game carryover, you see the play-action, you see the shots — I feel like they have some guys that can hurt you outside, they have some difference-makers at wide receiver, but they also have some really good backs,” he said. “So (they are a) very, very good team.”

In order to do well against South Carolina, Stoops said the Wildcats can’t afford to duplicate last week’s performance against the Mocs.

“I’m sure they’re going to be motivated, but definitely,” the Kentucky coach said. “I thought they (South Carolina) had some good-looking personnel as well. Those guys are playing really hard and fundamentally sound up front for South Carolina. They had some good-looking guys up there that are playing good. Definitely, we have to play better.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, 7 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN2 and UK Radio Network.

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Keith Taylor
Keith Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has covered Kentucky athletics since 1995. He is the sports editor of Kentucky Today and his work appears in 12 daily newspapers as well as various weekly and web sites throughout the state. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor 21.

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