Ronnie Sneed's smile said it all.
"It's been a while," Kentucky's senior middle linebacker said. "I don't think anybody has really felt this was, especially after a game, so far this season."
The Wildcats (3-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) broke a four-game losing streak by beating Jacksonville State 38-14 on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium. UK set season highs in points, rushing yards and total offense while the defense pressured Jacksonville State (5-2, 4-0 Ohio Valley Conference) into three turnovers.
"We desperately needed it," Sneed said. "I knew that everybody was going to come out of the gates. We had something to prove and that's what we did. It was a win that we really needed."
It wasn't quite a perfect start for Kentucky. The offense, which had struggled mightily in the previous three games, went three-and-out twice and turned the ball over once in its first three possessions.
Then junior safety Martavius Neloms came loose on a blitz, sacking Gamecock quarterback Coty Blanchard and forcing a fumble. He picked it up and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 lead and all the momentum. UK scored on its next two offensive possessions, sustaining drives of 76 and 85 yards.
"We needed someone to make a play for us," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "Neloms did."
Junior wide receiver La'Rod King, who had struggled in the last two weeks as the UK passing game withered away, exploded for one of his best games this season. He finished with five catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. On his first touchdown, he jumped over a Jacksonville State defender who was called for defensive pass interference on the play, making the catch anyway.
Junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who had completed just 10-41 passes in the last two games, went 10-16 on Saturday for 105 yards. He also ran 12 times for 75 yards and had three total touchdowns.
Even without freshman tailback Josh Clemons, who is out for the season, and sophomore Raymond Sanders, UK piled up 340 yards rushing.
"We played pretty mistake-free today and we handed it off a lot," Newton said. "We had some success that way, so it was really good for us."
The defense shut Jacksonville State out in the second half. A 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from the Gamecocks early in the fourth quarter threatened to swing momentum away from the Wildcats, but the UK offense responded. They scored a touchdown two drives later to seal the win.
"We needed a game where we could come in and play a full 60 minutes of football and get the pressure off of us," Sneed said. "I'm proud of my team that came out and fought hard."
For the fourth consecutive week, true freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith saw game action. This time though, he wasn't relieving a beleaguered Newton or closing out a beatdown at the hands of another SEC opponent.
This was a blowout for the Wildcats, just like they hoped it would be. That was reason enough for Sneed to keep on smiling.
"We see a lot of improvement from this game," he said. "Jacksonville State is a great (FCS) school. The other schools we played that weren't in our conference, I feel like this team was just as good as them or better. We just didn't have everything together like we should have so we didn't blow those teams out."
-Senior linebacker Danny Trevathan failed to reach double-digit tackles for the first time this season. He finished with five, including just one solo tackle. He entered the game leading the SEC in tackles but is now second on the team with 77 stops on the year.
Senior safety/linebacker Winston Guy had a game-high 12 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He now has 79 tackles on the season. Guy also finished with a forced fumble and two pass breakups that came on dropped interceptions.
-Announced attendance was 54,098. The lowest attendance at Commonwealth Stadium since being expanded in 1999 was 51,114 against Vanderbilt on Nov. 16, 2002. The official attendance number released counted tickets sold, not the number of people who entered through the Commonwealth Stadium gates on Saturday.
Saturday's announced attendance is the lowest at Commonwealth Stadium since 53,463 people saw Kentucky beat Louisiana-Monroe 42-40 on Nov. 18, 2006. Four home games that season saw a crowd of less than 60,000.
-Jacksonville State tailback Washaun Ealey ran for 120 yards on 16 carries, but was held out of the end zone. In 2010, while playing for Georgia, Ealey carried 28 times for 157 yards and five touchdowns.
"It was a little different," Ealey said.
-Senior defensive tackle Luke McDermott recorded his second career interception in the fourth quarter. Senior corner Anthony Mosley has one in his career. Trevathan has two in his career.
-King surpassed 1,000 career receiving yards in the win, becoming the 22nd Wildcat to do so in his career. He finished the game with five receptions for 84 yards and caught both of Newton's touchdown passes. He now has 1,019 career receiving yards. King is 33 yards away from passing Derek Homer for 21st on the all-time receiving list at Kentucky. King is eighth in the SEC this year with 399 receiving yards and tied for second with six touchdowns.
Sophomore running back Raymond Sanders injured his right ankle early in the game. He finished with two carries for 10 yards.
Sophomore defensive tackle Mister Cobble injured his left shoulder. CoShik Williams left late in the game with cramps.
Freshman wide receiver Demarco Robinson did not dress for the game.
Junior defensive end Collins Ukwu, who has been out with a sprain knee, played in the game but did not record any statistics.