By Jamie H. Vaught
That "blackout" showdown last Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium will be talked about for a long time.
And Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is a very popular man these days.
His troops have taken the struggling but newly-improved football program to a new level -- a middle-of-the-road SEC team, not seen in several years. But they don't plan to stop improving, either, aiming for an SEC championship down the road.
Following Kentucky's dramatic 45-38 comeback victory over unranked South Carolina, a preseason Top 10 squad, Stoops saw his 4-1 Wildcats now getting some respect, garnering 11 votes for No. 36 in Sunday's USA Today Coaches Poll.
The stunning win over legendary Steve Spurrier and USC was monumental as Stoops earned his first signature victory of his head coaching career despite seeing his Wildcats twice falling behind by two touchdowns in the early first half and fourth quarter.
"I think it meant a lot," said Stoops, the former defensive coordinator at Florida State. "I think it's a big step. And we're very grateful for it. And as I just told them, I really want them to dig down, and there's a lot more in there for us. We could play better. And we can all do our job better. But very grateful for the effort.
"It was one of the special atmospheres that I've been in because of what it means to this program, because of how far we've had to dig ourselves out of the hole."
On the setback that dropped USC to 3-3, Spurrier said, "Okay, I'm not going to yell and scream. Everybody saw what happened. They scored more points than we did; they got a deflection and a touchdown, and they beat us. They had a lot of guys play pretty well and probably a lot that didn’t play well, but overall as a team we got beat. Simple as that. Got beat."
Other pigskin leftovers:
---Freshman defensive tackle Matt Elam, a highly-regarded five-star prospect who chose UK over Alabama and Notre Dame, picked up his first career pass break-up.
Elam said the post-game celebration with the fans on the field was wild.
"It was crazy; I have never experienced anything like that," said the 6-7, 375-pounder from Elizabethtown. "Everybody rushing the field and we were in the middle so we just started celebrating. It was an amazing win and good victory, obviously we came back. It was nice just being down there with the team and everybody that supports us.
"There was a lot of fans hitting and smacking me, telling me great job. It made me feel good about myself but I still have a long way to go. It was just crazy the whole atmosphere with all the fans rushing the field and everything. That was kind of cool."
---Senior defensive end star Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who started his team-leading 31st straight contest, finally got his first career interception against the Gamecocks. His steal was the one that clinched the victory for Kentucky by returning it six yards for his first collegiate touchdown.
On his winning TD with 2:29 remaining, Dupree said, "It’s always a good feeling to get in the end zone. It’s still really hard to take in (about how important that moment was) and that one play really just changed the game."
Asked if the ball looked big or small in the air, Dupree added, "When I see the ball, the ball gets big. My eyes get big. Just catch it."
---Sophomore running back Jojo Kemp of Kentucky credited the offensive line for his rushing success in the "Wildcat" formation after running a career-high 17 times for a career-best 131 yards and three TDs.
“My whole line was out there hungry and fighting for every yard I got. So I have to give the praise to my whole line," said the Deland, Fla., product.
---After ex-UK star Randall Cobb helped Green Bay to a 42-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, including his eight-yard TD reception, in a Thursday night matchup, Cobb came to Lexington over the weekend to support the Wildcats.
The popular Packer received loud ovation from a sellout crowd of 62,135 when he came on the field in the second half along with the other former Wildcat standouts, including Jared Lorenzen.
His Green Bay team (3-2) plays the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Oct. 12.
---Stoops was asked after the game if the Wildcats have reached a turning point. He said yes but only if Kentucky defeats ULM (Louisiana Monroe) this Saturday.
"If we go out and win next week and take care of business, I think we do," said Stoops. "I mean that."
If you remember, Kentucky once lost to ULM (then Northeast Louisiana) by a score of 21-14 in 1994. Although the Wildcats are much better this time than Bill Curry's 1-10 squad in 1994, they still better be careful with the 3-2 Warhawks, who dropped to Arkansas State 28-14 Saturday night.
ULM, by the way, also defeated a couple of SEC teams in recent years -- Alabama in 2007 and Arkansas in 2012.
Stoops also cautioned about the possible trap game against ULM after a reporter inquired if the coach is ready for a break in SEC action after two straight successful weekends against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
"We can't even attempt to think that way against Monroe because they'll beat our butts," warned Stoops. "They've won a lot of football games and are well coached. It's not even going to enter our mind. It's not easy. It is what it is.
"You have to dig down and do what you can do to get your rest, and the guys got to be back and ready to practice. That's how you become a successful program and not just have these ups and downs."
A quick forecast: Kentucky over ULM by 17.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the new KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.