LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's goal after a once-promising start to the season was derailed is now avoiding its first three-game losing streak in nearly two seasons.
The Wildcats were just one quarter away from a 3-0 start nine days ago, but have been knocked on their heels.
Kentucky (2-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) hasn't lost three in a row since the end of 2017. The Wildcats opened 2019 with two nonconference victories but have had fourth-quarter collapse in a 29-21 defeat to No. 9 Florida and followed that up with a 28-13 loss at Mississippi State.
Kentucky now faces a gut check on Saturday night at South Carolina (1-3, 0-2), which is in a current funk of its own.
Wildcats coach Mark Stoops believes his team can turn things around by avoiding the mistakes that led to the skid.
"I don't foresee us having a losing mentality," the coach said Monday. "Just avoid the bad habits that put you in that situation. If you're disciplined in the way you do things, that's how well you play."
That's been challenging in many phases since the Wildcats blew that 21-10 fourth-quarter lead against the Gators nearly two weeks ago.
Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith threw an opening-drive interception that MSU returned 52 yards for a touchdown that helped dig a 21-3 hole that forced the Wildcats to pass — a lot, completing just 15 of 42 attempts for 232 yards.
"Everybody wants to see the ball thrown 42 times, well, you did," Stoops joked. "Hope you're happy. ... It's not by design."
The defense meanwhile initially seemed hung over from the Florida loss with missed tackles that allowed SEC rushing leader Kylin Hill to run for two of his three TDs by halftime. Kentucky's kicking game sputtered as well, as Chance Poore missed two of three field goals and was replaced by Matt Ruffolo.
Despite the miscues, the Wildcats were outgained just 421-386 and Stoops noted that they trailed by just eight late in the game before Hill's final TD run.
"When you look at the film, there are so many areas that we need to improve," Stoops added. "It wasn't up to our standards and expectations."
Health-wise, Stoops is monitoring Smith, who was sore after being sacked three times in his second start. Ruffolo will handle initial kicking duties in practice as Poore's legs recover from being hit at MSU.
Kentucky has had success recently against South Carolina, riding a five-game winning streak over the Gamecocks — including two triumphs in Columbia. South Carolina has yet to beat a Power Five school this season and has lost both SEC games by least 20 points, including 47-23 to No. 2 Alabama two weeks ago.
Though that creates an opportunity for Kentucky, Stoops notes that taking advantage depends on his team getting out of its own way after its worst performance this season.
"Across the board, it just wasn't clean enough," he said. "We got beat, didn't play or coach good enough and got to get it out of them this week."