LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For one half, No. 17 Kentucky's offense showed the intensity that helped earn its first Top 25 in nearly 11 years. When things sputtered afterward against South Carolina, the Wildcats' defense rose to the challenge with clutch plays to ensure their new-found status ended on a high note.
Their strong start was certainly critical, too.
Benny Snell Jr. ran for 99 yards and one of Kentucky's three consecutive first-half touchdowns and the Wildcats held on for a 24-10 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.
Kentucky (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) quashed initial concerns about a letdown following their first ranking since November 2007 by scoring on four straight drives to lead 24-3 at halftime. The Wildcats ended up needing that cushion to offset a scoreless second half and Jake Bentley's 58-yard, third quarter TD pass to Deebo Samuel that kept the Gamecocks (2-2, 1-2) within striking distance.
Mike Edwards' interception with 3:47 remaining snuffed one chance by the Gamecocks before they turned the ball over on downs in the final minute. Those defensive stands sealed Kentucky's fifth consecutive series win and continued its best SEC start since 1977.
"We could have finished that a little better," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "We shot ourselves in the foot and got a little reckless with some penalties and just a little bit of sloppy play, or we'd really have a chance to put that away much earlier than we did.
"I loved the way our team started; we knew we had to start fast. We gave up the one (TD) off a scramble and just a misjudged ball, we really had an opportunity to intercept it. ... But outside of that, I thought our defense did an exceptional job limiting big plays."
The Wildcats registered four turnovers, including interceptions by Derrick Baity, Darius West and Edwards. They scored 10 points off a fumble and interception before West and Edwards picked off Bentley and preserved a second consecutive SEC win by double digits.
And it's still a work in progress.
"You guys still haven't seen our best yet," said linebacker Jordan Jones, whose forced fumble and recovery at the South Carolina 7 set up Miles Butler's field goal. "You have seen some good parts of us but there are still a lot of things we're going to go over on film and get cleaned up. It's going to make us even better."
Snell's rushing yardage on 28 carries also made him the third Wildcat to break 3,000 in a career. His 4-yard score with 4:53 remaining in the second quarter extended his TD record to 40. Quarterback Terry Wilson and A.J. Rose ran for TDs from 1 and 24 yards as Kentucky edged South Carolina 327-321 in yardage.
"We're going to watch the film and be extremely disappointed with a lot of self-inflicted issues," South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. "Give Kentucky credit, they're a good football team. But we hurt ourselves."
Kentucky's first Top 25 presence in 11 years will last another week.
Both teams were penalized 11 times in a sometimes-chippy game. Kentucky was hit for 115 yards, South Carolina 94. Wildcats linebacker Kash Daniel was ejected in the third quarter for targeting while blocking on West's interception.
After averaging just under 50,000 for previous home games against Central Michigan and FCS Murray State, Kentucky has attracted consecutive crowds of at least 60,000, including Saturday's night sellout of 63,081.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks' passing game cranked up after halftime and they were within two possessions midway in the fourth quarter. But their attempt to catch-up through the air also resulted in costly interceptions by Bentley (13 of 28 passing, 148 yards), including one in the end zone.
"There's a lot of play I could've done better," Bentley said. "I don't know what it was. I've just got to play better."
Kentucky: The Wildcats seemed headed toward a second consecutive SEC rout at the break by dominating the Gamecocks on both sides of the ball. A scoreless second half opened the door for South Carolina, but the defense came up with two timely turnovers to preserve the lead. That was enough to offset the TD that marked the first points they've allowed in the third quarter this season.
South Carolina hosts Missouri on Saturday to open a three-game homestand.
Kentucky visits Texas A&M on Saturday in its first SEC meeting with the Aggies.
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