UK Football

Mark Story: Towles' wavering accuracy resurrects old doubts

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles (14) throws downfield as Kentucky played Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday September 5, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles (14) throws downfield as Kentucky played Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday September 5, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

No one has ever questioned Patrick Towles' arm strength. The question about the former Fort Thomas Highlands star as an Air Raid quarterback has always been accuracy.

Coming into his second season as Kentucky's starting quarterback, the belief was that Towles would take a big step forward in his redshirt junior season.

For a half Saturday night in Kentucky's season-opening contest with Louisiana-Lafayette, that Towles was on display.

In half one, the UK QB hit 10 of 18 passes, threw for two touchdowns and led Kentucky to a 24-7 lead. Even better, new Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson made good on his promise of letting Towles throw deep more often.

Before halftime, Towles completed passes of 27, 35, 29, 28, 37 and 26 yards.

To that point, Towles seemed to be making the "fourth-year" elevation the best UK quarterbacks of the 21st century have made.

But half two brought all the questions back about Towles accuracy.

The good news is Kentucky averted a disaster in the first game played in the "new Commonwealth Stadium." After losing all of a 33-10 lead, UK won 40-33 thanks to a Mikel Horton 12-yard touchdown rumble with 57 second left.

"Great night. Great victory. Completely happy with the (fan) turnout," said Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, clearly in glass half-full mode after the game.

One could all but hear what remained of a sell-out Commonwealth crowd of 62,933 exhale in relief.

For Towles, however, the second half was a slog.

After halftime, the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder completed only 6-of-16 passes for a meager 38 yards. He also threw a costly interception.

Most worrisome, the accuracy issues — not hitting open receivers in stride, as the Air Raid requires — reared their head.

With UK up 24-7 early in the third quarter, Kentucky had a chance to put the Ragin' Cajuns away after Elijah McGuire fumbled a punt and Kentucky long snapper Kelly Mason recovered at the UL-L 21.

On first-and-10, new UK OC Dawson went for the throat and had Towles throw into the end zone. Garrett Johnson was behind the UL-L defense, but Towles overthrew him.

UK still reached the UL-L 7, but on second and third down, two straight Towles throws into the end zone were broken up.

It seemed to set the tone for the second half.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky defense was falling victim to an old bugaboo — defending the read option. With run-oriented UL-L QB Jalen Nixon leading a furious rally, the Ragin' Cajuns pulled within 33-25 behind two TD runs by back-up running back Torrey Pierce.

The new Commonwealth Stadium was suddenly filled with a familiar, "oh no, here we go again" unease. With what had been a 23-point Kentucky lead cut to eight, Towles underthrew an open Garrett Johnson on a deep middle route and was picked off by Tracy Walker.

Nixon promptly drove UL-L to the tying TD, going 23 yards for the score. Louisiana-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire then tied it by running in the two-point conversion off a Boise State-style statue of liberty play.

If the most important quarterback stat is the win/loss record, it is to the credit of Kentucky and Towles that, after so much went wrong, they found a way to win the game.

With UK facing a 3rd-and-12 late in the fourth quarter, Towles hit sophomore walk-on Charles Walker with a clutch 12-yard completion.

Kentucky rolled the dice and went for it on 4th-and-inches, and Towles fumbled the snap, picked the ball up and got the first down.

Eventually, Horton cashed that opportunity into the winning TD.

Coming into the season, the biggest threat to Kentucky's bowl aspirations in my opinion is a defense that lost standouts Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith to the NFL off a 2014 unit that was no great shakes to begin with.

That defense surrendered 479 yards Saturday night to a Sun Belt Conference foe — a good SBC opponent, but still.

For Kentucky to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, its offense must be both potent and consistent.

So must its quarterback.

To have any chance of postseason play in 2015, Kentucky needs the Patrick Towles of Saturday night's first half, not the guy from half two.