John Clay

Kentucky’s football coaches go from rockheads to geniuses, in just one game!

Twitter being the bubbling cauldron of hot takes that is Twitter, Saturday night’s early Kentucky football commentary was predictably knee-jerk. Consensus: Head coach Mark Stoops can’t coach. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is a joke. How did this supposed braintrust ever think a plan this crazy would actually work?

But as the game progressed, as wide receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden began doing Lynn Bowden things, and the Kentucky defense stiffened, and the Cats grabbed a third-quarter lead, opinion turned and so quite possibly the season.

Actually, the turning point of UK’s 24-20 victory over visiting Arkansas occurred in the final frame. The Razorbacks, now losers of 14 straight SEC games, had taken a 20-17 lead with 10:35 remaining behind backup quarterback Ben Hicks. And we all know Kentucky’s unfortunate history against backup quarterbacks.

Truth be told, Stoops’ Cats had clawed their way to this point. The game’s second play, Arkansas’ Rakeem Boyd sprinted 74 yards to the end zone. A first-quarter roll of the dice by going for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 35 had blown up in Stoops’ face. With starting quarterback Terry Wilson out for the season and back-up Sawyer Smith too hurt to trust — give the gutty Smith credit, were his throwing arm amputated he’d still tell you he’s good to go — playing Bowden at quarterback seemed a strategic bust. With 5:48 left in the first half, Arkansas led 13-0.

“My talk to (the players) Friday night was about staying focused, being patient,” said Gran on Saturday. “Playing hard and playing with a competitive edge. I felt like we played like that tonight.”

Patience prevailed. A 75-yard TD drive before the end of the first half cut the Arkansas lead to 13-7. When wide receiver Clevan Thomas snatched Bowden’s 10-yard scoring throw with 1:50 left in the third, Kentucky owned its first lead, 17-13. When Arkansas snatched the lead right back two possessions later, Kentucky’s perseverance paid off.

Taking over at its own 25, UK’s Kavosiey Smoke ripped off a 20-yard run to get the party started. Three snaps later, A.J. Rose roared for 27 more. There was no secret to the Cats intent. Everyone in the crowd of 57,060 honoring the late Jared Lorenzen knew what was coming. “We knew we had to run the ball,” said Gran, and three plays later there was Bowden dancing his way 24 yards for what would be the game-winning score.

The armchair analysts had hectored Stoops and staff over the preceding three-game losing streak. Never mind last year’s 10 wins. Never mind the heavy graduation losses. Never mind that Wilson was lost for the season two games into the season. A fourth-quarter collapse against Florida, a lifeless loss at Mississippi State, an anemic offensive performance at South Carolina and it was “what have you done for me lately?”

Give them all Saturday game balls, however. Gran was asked if in his long and prestigious career — he chuckled at that — had the OC ever been forced to even try what he pulled off Saturday. Never, he said. Kudos to quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw for his help with the magic trick. And don’t forget defensive coordinator Brad White, whose work with his young group has been overshadowed by the offensive struggles.

“I think it can help a lot,” said Stoops when asked what the win could do for a young team’s development. “I think the guys grew up the past couple weeks.”

Who knows what happens from here? Does Bowden remain at quarterback? Does a healed Smith regain the reins? Saturday’s foe, Georgia, figures to be one pack of angry Dawgs after losing to South Carolina between the hedges. Missouri appears on a mission. What do you know, Tennessee won an SEC game. And Louisville scored 62 points Saturday to defeat a ranked Wake Forest squad. Kentucky’s fourth straight bowl trip is far from a lock.

Here’s what we do know: Thanks to creative coaching and a special, versatile talent, Kentucky’s football season turned back around Saturday to the point where the Cats now have a chance.

Next game

Kentucky at No. 10 Georgia

6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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