John Clay

Why I’d stick with Lynn Bowden as Kentucky’s quarterback

This is why coaches get paid the big bucks.

You are the coaching collaboration that is Mark Stoops, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw who broke the emergency glass and moved Kentucky’s best offensive player, a wide receiver, to quarterback to earn a key SEC victory.

So what do you do now?

Do you stick with Lynn Bowden, the junior wideout who channeled his high school quarterback glory days to rush for 196 yards and throw for a touchdown in the Wildcats’ 24-20 win over Arkansas at Kroger Field?

Or do you return to Sawyer Smith, provided your previous starter at the position is good to go after using the last two weeks — a bye week leading up to Oct. 5 and a DNP on Oct. 12 — to heal up from an assortment of injuries including wrist (Florida), shoulder (Mississippi State) and lower leg (South Carolina)?

And remember, you’re at No. 10 Georgia on Saturday. That’s the same Georgia who opened as a 27-point favorite over the Cats, the same Georgia which figures to be furious after being upset 20-17 in overtime by South Carolina, the same Georgia that must win out, and impressively, to have any shot at a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Well? What’s it going to be?

Bowden earned SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his heroics, but Arkansas isn’t Georgia. The Razorbacks have now lost 14 straight conference games. The longer Bowden is at quarterback, the longer opposing defensive coordinators can scheme to defend him. And, as always, Georgia’s defense is athletic and physical. Ask South Carolina freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who departed in the third quarter after a Bulldogs hit injured his knee.

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Remember, Bowden carried the ball 24 times against Arkansas. That’s 24 times exposing your best offensive player to possible injury. Should the worst-case scenario happen, you lose not just your quarterback but (a) your best wide receiver, and (b) your punt and kick returner.

That said, a less-than-100 percent Smith is a liability. If you get the Smith who performed well for three quarters against Florida, you’re the Jeopardy champion. If you get the Purple Heart Smith who struggled at Mississippi State and South Carolina -- combined 26-of-73 passing -- you’ve checked your coaching IQ at the door.

Here’s another factor: The strength of the opponent. Facing Georgia in Athens, fans might want to concede defeat and focus on the rest of the schedule. Coaches don’t think that way. (Or they won’t admit to thinking that way.) They want to show confidence in their players. Had South Carolina’s Will Muschamp waved the white flag at Georgia, his athletic director would not have needed to apologize for the Gamecocks damaging the Sanford Stadium hedges during the victory celebration.

On any given Saturday . . .

Were it me, I’d stick with Bowden. He’s your best player who gives you the best chance to win. As last Saturday progressed, Bowden gained both comfort and confidence. He is the threat in the Q-run game — that’s quarterback run game, as I learned during Stoops’ Monday press conference — the Cats lost when Terry Wilson went down for the season. And the UK offense is a better offense when it is based on running the football.

Here’s another factor in Bowden’s favor: This is a weird scheduling year. Instead of a single off week, the 2019 campaign includes a pair of open dates. After playing host to Missouri on Oct. 26, UK is off again on Nov. 2. That’s an extra week for the Cats to recharge their batteries for a home stretch that includes Tennessee, Vanderbilt, UT Martin and Louisville.

By that time, maybe Bowden has taken too many hits, Smith is healthy, and you make the switch back. Or maybe the off week is just what Bowden needs to carry you to the finish line.

As for now, were I a member of the Big Blue brain trust, I’d stick with Lynn Bowden at quarterback.

Why mess with success?

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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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