A fortuitous fumble gave Kentucky one last chance — a prime opportunity in a prime spot on the field — to finish off a game the Wildcats had controlled from the beginning.
Taking over at the Tennessee 45-yard line — 7:44 left on the clock and trailing 17-13 — the Cats went back to work on the ground, doing what they had all night. By the end, UK’s admittedly one-dimensional offense had held the football for more than 40 minutes, throwing just seven times on 71 plays. On their last possession, the Cats continued to milk the clock and work their way toward the end zone. They came up two yards short. Tennessee won 17-13.
The first 10 plays of that final possession were all runs. All of them went for positive yardage, and — following a Tennessee penalty out of a timeout — the Cats had it third-and-goal at the Vols 1. Chris Rodriguez, who had been brilliant to that point in the night, was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. That set up one last play: fourth-and-goal from the Tennessee 2 with the game on the line.
Everybody at Kroger Field had a pretty good idea of where the ball was going.
UK receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden was at the tail end of another stellar night. He lined up to take the snap — two tight ends on the left side of the line, two receivers split wide to the right, and Rodriguez behind him in the backfield.
Coach Mark Stoops acknowledged that he considered a timeout before the play, but he wanted to hold on to all three in case the Wildcats didn’t score and Tennessee got the ball back with a little more than a minute on the clock. And UK’s coaches liked their chances.
“So, once we felt like we had a look, I let it go,” Stoops said. “I preferred to keep the timeout, but it was more based on the look we were getting defensively and whether we had a chance to get that ball to the perimeter.”
To that point, Bowden and Rodriguez had combined for 195 rushing yards. The call was for Bowden to take it to his right and either pitch it to Rodriguez or try for the end zone himself. He kept it, turned toward the end zone at about the 5-yard line, and was stuffed by UT’s Daniel Bituli and Ja’Quain Blakely at the original line of scrimmage.
“I had the option to pitch it or turn the corner,” Bowden said. “They took my pitch key away, and I just tried to turn the corner. In the trenches and big guys — they got their hands on me before I could do anything.”
It was Tennessee’s Nigel Warrior — who had intercepted a Bowden pass earlier in the night — who played the lane between he and Rodriguez, effectively — in Bowden’s eyes — cutting off his chances to pitch the ball.
“Before the play, something in me was telling me to take the pitch,” Warrior said. “‘Don’t take the quarterback, take the pitch.’ Thankfully, my guys came in and did what they were supposed to do and gave enough time to come tackle the quarterback.”
Bowden, who looked Rodriguez’s way one last time and offered a fake pitch just before turning toward the end zone, said he thought he had just enough room to get there.
“I thought I did,” he said. “Maybe if I had just taken one less step and hit (the hole) right away, I probably get in. It’s just a lot going on at the end. … And we just didn’t capitalize. And you can put that on me and nobody else.”
Neither Stoops nor offensive coordinator Eddie Gran questioned Bowden’s final decision — to keep it himself and try to make a play, like he has so many times this season.
“I thought Lynn played a really good play,” Stoops said. “I’ll never argue with Lynn with the taking it right there and he stretched it to the perimeter. We’ll probably look at it and feel like if he would have pitched it would have been a foot race to the pylon and probably had a chance. But I’m not going to argue with that kid and the way he has a chance to pull the ball down and try to drive it in there and get the one yard. Credit them for a nice stop.”
Gran explained the play from his perspective.
“We had a chance to go either way with it, and our numbers were better that way,” he said. “It got strung out, and that’s all I saw from where I was — that it got strung out. Could he have pitched it? I don’t know. I don’t know those answers right now. If it’s a pitch, it’s probably a foot race to the end zone with the running back. But, he’s kept it, too, when he thought he should keep it. And he’s been pretty darn good at it.”