In the long stretch of stressful Saturdays that is Southeastern Conference football, it doesn’t hurt to have a difference-maker at your most important position.
You could make a strong case that Saturday night at The Swamp, Terry Touchdown was the difference.
“Did you see him?” exclaimed UK running back Benny Snell in the postgame press conference when asked about his teammate Terry Wilson. “Did you see what he was doing?”
To be sure, Kentucky boasted a room full of heroes Saturday night. Snell himself rushed for 175 yards on 20 carries. David Bouvier and Lynn Bowden caught long touchdown passes. Darius West made a key interception. Josh Allen and the UK defensive line harassed the Florida quarterback on the way to the 27-16 win over the Gators that ended the nightmare of a 31-game losing streak.
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But Kentucky doesn’t roll back the clock from 31 to none without the big-play ability of its quarterback, the junior college transfer who displayed the gifts that caused Mark Stoops and his staff to recruit him so aggressively in the first place.
“You never know about these things,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran on Saturday, “but, yeah, you certainly hope.”
Wilson ended up completing 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the football 10 times for 105 yards and another score. That made him the first UK quarterback since Jalen Whitlow in 2013 to run and pass for 100 yards or more in the same game. Whitlow did it against Alabama State. Florida is not Alabama State.
True, Terry Touchdown was again Terry Turnover in the first half, giving away first a fumble and then an interception. That brought his turnover total to an alarming five giveaways through the first six quarters of the season. If Wilson is a high-risk/high-reward type of player, however, the rewards shamed the risks.
In the first quarter, a 31-yard Wilson run down the right sideline set up a 29-yard scramble-and-throw touchdown to Bouvier, who had slipped behind the Florida secondary as his quarterback was buying time for the game’s first score.
In the second half, Wilson scored on a 24-yard run with 9:49 left in the third quarter to give Kentucky a 14-10 lead over the home team, a two-touchdown favorite.
Then with 4:11 left, Wilson made the play of the night. On a third-and-16 from his own 46, the quarterback danced in the pocket and then unleashed a frozen rope of a pass right on target to wide receiver Lynn Bowden for a 54-yard score and an 11-point Kentucky lead.
“He reminded me of me in high school,” said a grinning Bowden afterward.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Saturday’s triumph in the psyche of a program and fan base forced to endure the embarrassment of the 31-year streak. “They didn’t deserve that,” said Stoops of the current players.
Though UK outplayed Florida a year ago at Kroger Field, the heartbreak of that 28-27 loss to the Gators only added to the frustration. Saturday, for the second straight year, Kentucky looked like the better team. Only this time, the Cats won.
They certainly had the better quarterback. Wilson outplayed his counterpart, Florida’s Feleipe Franks, who was 17-for-38 for 232 yards through the air. In Dan Mullen’s spread attack, Franks carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards. ESPN’s QBR rating gave Franks a 48.2. Wilson scored an 86.2.
This year, the SEC has an unusually high number of terrific quarterbacks: Alabama’s duo of Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts; Missouri’s Drew Lock; Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham; Georgia’s Jake Fromm; South Carolina’s Jake Bentley; Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald; Ole Miss’ Jordan Ta’amu. The list goes on.
It’s a long season, but Wilson showed signs Saturday of placing himself right in that mix. “I felt like I got my feet underneath me,” he said afterward, as if The Swamp was merely the start of something, the start of something that could be very different indeed.
Murray State at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC Network Alternate)