Kentucky has hitched its wagon to Lynn Bowden. Will his play at quarterback ultimately be enough to get the Wildcats to their fourth straight bowl game?
Bowden, as evidenced by Kentucky’s play calling, is not a passer. Through nine games — four straight as the Cats’ starting quarterback — Bowden is 19-of-44 with an interception, retrieved by Tennessee’s Nigel Warrior midway through the second quarter on Saturday. Terry Wilson, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in the seventh quarter of Kentucky’s season, has eight more pass attempts this season.
Whatever effectiveness Bowden has as a tosser — he has shown power on his deep throws and has thrown one touchdown — was not helped by the absences of Ahmad Wagner, Kentucky’s second-leading receiver on the year, and Bryce Oliver, who suffered a toe injury in practice this week. That Bowden remains the Wildcats’ leading receiver despite not having started at the position since September doesn’t inspire much confidence in UK’s passing attack, regardless of who’s running routes for him.
On the other hand, Bowden the runner, and him being a constant threat to run, has been sensational. He has topped 100 yards in three of his four games — and came close to making it 4-for-4 — and done it against defenses that were a.) stout against the run and b.) knew he wouldn’t throw much. Bowden in the backfield, if anything, has improved the lanes available to UK’s trio of running backs, who have done their part more often than not the last four weeks. Bowden led the way against Tennessee — 114 yards on 26 carries — but A.J. Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez accounted for 183 yards on 36 rushes.
Head coach Mark Stoops acknowledged Saturday night that his team has become one dimensional on offense. Despite that truth, and Tennessee’s awareness of it, the Wildcats (4-5) racked up 302 yards and controlled the ball for more than 41 minutes in a 17-13 loss.
The offense, for the most part, worked well enough to put points on the board — the scoring just didn’t materialize, most notably on a pair of failed conversions inside the game’s final minutes. Rodriguez lost a yard on a third-and-1 from the 1-yard line; Bowden a play later failed to pick up the 2 yards needed to put the Cats ahead, possibly for good.
“We were riding with Lynn and we got the ball down there with a heck of a drive there at the end,” Stoops said. “It really wasn’t intentional, it’s just who we are, being very methodical right now and having to get tough yards. But with that, you take that, whatever it was, five, six-minute drive, and make them use up timeouts and you punch that in right there, and you feel pretty good about your chances.”
It’s understandable, in a vacuum with the game on the line, to second-guess Bowden’s decision — a pitch to Rodriguez might have netted a score on the fourth-and-2 — or even the staff’s decision to have him at quarterback; Sawyer Smith is purportedly at 100 percent, and in each of the last two games has entered the game and converted critical first downs.
When more context gets introduced, it’s tougher to lambast those involved: the same offense that stalled at the 2-yard line with 1:17 to play also opened the game by scoring from 2 yards out to go up 7-0 after a 75-yard drive that lasted more than 10 minutes. A blocked PAT in the first quarter negated the possibility of trying a field goal in the final two minutes, and instead put on Bowden’s shoulders what could have been on those of Chance Poore.
Should one play make the difference when evaluating whether Bowden should be the guy at quarterback when he has been the most reliable player for the Wildcats the last month and a half?
“‘Do you need to throw it more? What is going to give our football team the best chance to win?’ And that’s what we’ll discuss tomorrow,” co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “Lynn Bowden gave us a chance to win tonight. That’s a fact.”
The idea of Bowden as anything more than a change-of-pace, one-play-here-and-there quarterback could not have crossed the UK coaching staff’s hive mind until late September, at the earliest. There are now four games worth of film to dissect, for opponents and those in Lexington.
Center Drake Jackson joined a chorus of Wildcats who appreciate and enjoy what UK’s offense has done with Bowden at its head before offering some perspective on the Cats’ struggle to score.
“We have to figure out a way to handle things that the defense throws at us. And it’s hard to do that when we’ve only been running this for a couple weeks,” Jackson said. “It’s easy to do that when you you’re running it in spring ball, you’re running it in fall camp, the whole season. It’s difficult to adjust when you are under such a different offense. We’re learning as we’re doing it.”
Vanderbilt, Kentucky’s next opponent, has given up nearly 200 rushing yards and 270 passing yards per game and has been outscored by an average of 20 points each time out. The Cats, if they want to stick with Bowden, could shake up the playbook some to test some pass plays against the league’s worst defense. The 2-7 Commodores, of course, will enter thinking they can continue to keep the league’s second-worst scoring offense out of the end zone (theirs is the worst, for what it’s worth).
Whether it’s a fifth straight start at quarterback or a move back to wide receiver, Bowden’s eager to re-tie his laces. Kentucky’s offense is married to him — in sickness and in health — and it’s so far been better for it, more often than not.
“We all came here to play football. This is our life for the next three or four years, for some people,” Bowden said. “We just gotta fight. We gotta fight.”