Kentucky nearly blew a 17-point halftime lead but made enough defensive plays in the second half to hang on for a 26-22 victory over South Carolina in an SEC opener in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday night.
The Wildcats (2-0, 1-0) held the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1) to field goals on three consecutive trips into the red zone to start the third quarter, redshirt freshman defensive end Denzil Ware picked up a fumble on South Carolina's two-point try and returned it 98 yards for two points, and freshman cornerback Chris Westry came up with an interception to seal the victory.
The visiting Wildcats dominated the first half after spotting the home team an early 7-0 lead -- junior linebacker Skai Moore's interception set up the Gamecocks at Kentucky's 1-yard line.
Junior quarterback Patrick Towles completed 12 of 17 passes for 151 yards and ran for a touchdowns and junior running back JoJo Kemp rushed for 72 yards and a score as the Wildcats built a 24-7 lead at intermission.
But, for the second straight week, the Wildcats went into a funk to start the second half, going three-and-out on their first four possessions.
Backup quarterback Perry Orth, a junior college transfer called into action when starter Connor Mitch went down with a sprained shoulder late in the second quarter, woke up the dormant South Carolina offense in the third quarter. But the Gamecocks had to settle for field goals after making three trips inside Kentucky's 20-yard line.
He finally found senior tight end Jerrel Adams for a 33-yard touchdown pass, but wide receiver Pharoh Cooper (nine catches, 100 yards) coughed up a fumble on the two-point try and Ware ran it back to make it a four-point game. Orth had a pass intercepted on his final series, and Kentucky ran out the clock.
Towles finished 21 of 29 for 192 yards. Stanley Boom Williams ran for 107 yards on 14 carries.