Nothing had worked right all night. Nothing much, anyway.
Kentucky had switched quarterbacks and back again; thrown short, thrown long; gone for it on fourth-and-short twice and failed; tried trick plays and predictable plays. Nothing worked until it had to work. And then it worked perfectly.
“That,” said UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran afterward, “is one of the greatest drives I’ve been a part of in my coaching career.”
When the unbelievable became the believable Saturday at Memorial Stadium and Kentucky won the football game on the final play —the way so many Kentucky teams have lost games; think Florida and Chris Doering in 1993; think LSU’s Bluegrass Miracle in 2002 — you had to stop and ask yourself how did Kentucky beat Missouri 15-14?
“They rose to the occasion,” said Gran.
Lynn Bowden rose to the occasion, the sophomore wide receiver who caught 13 passes for a career-high 166 yards, but who made the biggest play of the game by telling the coaching staff he wanted to return a punt. And he did, returning it 67 yards for the touchdown that changed the game, pulling UK back to within 14-9 with 5:18 left in what before that seemed to be a lost cause.
“I told Coach, ‘I’m feeling it,’” said Bowden.
David Bouvier rose to the occasion. That final drive, the one Gran spoke of, UK took over at its own 19-yard line, still down five points. Third-and-five at the 24, Bouvier made a terrific catch of a Terry Wilson pass for a 16-yard gain and a first down at the 40.
Next play, Bouvier slipped into an open seam. Wilson hit Bouvier with a strike for 27 yards and a first down at the Missouri 33.
Three plays later, Gran rose to the occasion. A 13-yard pass to Josh Ali took the ball to the Missouri 20. Then Wilson was sacked for a 7-yard loss. UK used its final timeout with eight seconds left. With the ball at the Missouri 27, the home team went into a prevent defense.
Gran went into his bag of tricks, electing not to throw the ball into the end zone, but to have the outside receivers clear out for Bowden, open underneath, who grabbed the pass and scooted down the sideline until he stepped out of bounds at the Missouri 10-yard line with four seconds left.
“We practiced that in fall camp,” Gran said. “It was a great job by our kids adjusting and doing what they needed to do, Terry, Lynn, I think it was Tavin (Richardson) out there. It was absolutely perfect.”
If that gave UK a final shot, a pass interference penalty in the end zone against Missouri the very next play gave the Cats one more final shot. An untimed down. The ball at the 2-yard line. Do-or-die. One play. Missouri called timeout.
“We were thinking about switching it and possibly running the ball,” said tight end C.J. Conrad. “I was like, ‘No. I’m winning this game for this team.’”
“There was 0.0 percent chance we were running the ball on that play,” said Gran. “We knew they were bringing the house.”
Missouri did blitz right up the middle. Wilson stayed firm. Conrad broke his route inside to the left. Tight end and quarterback were on the same page. Pass was perfect. Catch was perfect. And in an imperfect game for an offense that has struggled so much over the past three games, the call was executed perfectly.
“Unbelievable,” said Terry Wilson.
And, oh yes, the quarterback rose to the occasion. It was a week in which Wilson was questioned and challenged, his head coach saying UK would play “several” quarterbacks on Saturday. And the Cats did, starting Wilson, but subbing in Danny Clark (one play) and then Gunnar Hoak for three series, before going back to Wilson when it counted.
“It’s just a mindset,” said Wilson, after completing 22 of 31 passes for 267 yards and a score, when asked it he was bothered by everything. “I’m a team guy.”
And now, after the Missouri Miracle, this is a Kentucky football team that will play Georgia on Saturday at Kroger Field for the SEC East title.
Said Bowden, “We’ve got to put on a show.”