Mark Humphrey, File
September 23, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky is feeling good about itself heading into its matchup with South Carolina after the Wildcats stumbled out of the gate to start the season.

The Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) enter Saturday night's game against the Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1) having won the past two in the series. A third win puts Kentucky at .500 overall and in the conference, scenarios that seemed farfetched after their second-half collapse against Southern Mississippi and 45-7 pummeling at Florida on Sept. 10.

But Kentucky is looking to build off a victory that wasn't pretty but offered encouragement.

''We have shown that we can play some good football,'' Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said this week. ''I believe in these players and I hope the fans do as well. It's a long season and we will get better in certain areas, there is no doubt about that.''

Kentucky's offensive prospects appear brighter after breaking a 35-all halftime tie to pull away for a wild 62-42 win over New Mexico State last week. The Wildcats gained 692 yards in that game, and the backup quarterback who led the way is now in charge for the foreseeable future.

Junior Stephen Johnson will make his first start for the Wildcats after replacing Drew Barker, who's out indefinitely with a back injury sustained on last week's first drive. The transfer shook off a rough beginning to complete 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns to help Kentucky avoid an 0-3 start. And he's eager to show the effort was just the beginning.

''It went pretty well, I guess,'' Johnson said of his relief performance, which included 51 yards rushing. ''We're just going to try and do what we can on offense in moving the ball and game plan as well as we can.''

South Carolina enters with a young QB also coming off a strong performance.

Freshman Brandon McIlwain threw for 195 yards and rushed for two touchdowns in his first start as the Gamecocks topped East Carolina 20-15 . First-year coach Will Muschamp praised McIlwain's maturity during his steady rise into becoming the starter, poise that has positioned South Carolina to match last year's victory total.

''How you carry yourself tells a lot about who you are,'' the coach said. ''You build confidence, and he's done nothing but build it since he's been here.''

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Some other things to watch on Saturday night when Kentucky hosts South Carolina:

GET IT TOGETHER: Stoops blasted his defense after Wednesday's practice and even used ''crap'' to describe the day's uneven performance typifying their season. Kentucky's NCAA rankings have given him reason to be frustrated: the Wildcats are 122nd of 128 FBS schools in total defense (528.0 yards) and scoring defense (43.7 points). One upside is they're tied for fifth nationally with six interceptions.

RED-ZONE STINGINESS: The Gamecocks lead the SEC and rank seventh nationally in red zone defense with just five TDs and four field goals allowed on 16 opportunities. South Carolina denied East Carolina on four of six scoring opportunities inside the 20 last week and forced three turnovers inside the 5.

BEVY OF BACKS: Kentucky's backfield depth showed against New Mexico State as Stanley ''Boom'' Williams rushed for 181 yards on 18 carries while freshman Benny Snell chipped in 136 yards and four TDs on 17 attempts. The Wildcats' 381 ground yards were the most since November against Charlotte, when Williams and Jojo Kemp each rushed for at least 140 to lead a 415-yard effort.

ROAD TESTED: South Carolina will play its third game in four weeks before returning to Columbia for five home contests in six weeks. The Gamecocks have lost two of their last three visits to Lexington but Muschamp downplayed those recent struggles and added, ''it's what you make of it. Go play well and coach well.''

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AP College Football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves

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