John Clay

Fans want a change, but the guess here is UK sticks with Lynn Bowden at quarterback

Is it time to pull the plug on the Lynn Bowden Experience?

You know, the experience where Kentucky’s top wide receiver is playing quarterback, the case for the last four games. Mark Stoops’ Wildcats have gone 2-2 in those games, defeating Arkansas and Missouri, losing to Georgia and Tennessee.

Saturday night at Kroger Field, UK lost one it should have won. Kentucky outgained Tennessee 327-296. Kentucky controlled the football a mind-boggling 41:37 to Tennessee’s 18:23. And Kentucky lost to Tennessee 17-13.

“A bitter pill to swallow,” Stoops called it afterward.

The reason? Kentucky couldn’t finish drives. Six possessions they moved the ball into Tennessee territory without scoring a point. That included UK’s final possession when, down 17-13, they reached a first-and-goal at the Vols’ 6-yard line. Four straight runs ended with Bowden being stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the two. Ballgame.

“Put that on me,” Bowden said.

Kentucky fans put it on offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, whose squad ranks 104th nationally in total offense after finishing 104th last year and 103rd in 2017. Kentucky’s defense played winning football Saturday. Its offense moved the ball well enough to win. It just did not score enough points to win. Name of the game.

That brings us back to Bowden, who has filled in admirably for the injured Sawyer Smith, who was filling in for the injured Terry Wilson. Bowden rushed for 196 yards in the win over Arkansas, 204 in the win over Missouri and 114 more against the Vols. The last two games, however, he has thrown the ball a grand total of 14 times. It’s hard to win that way, especially in a league as tough as the SEC. The defenses are too good, the coordinators too wise. A one-dimensional offense, as even Stoops admits UK is right now, makes it easier for the defense to focus in on what it has to stop.

Long, punishing drives are impressive but rare. The longer a drive goes the more chances there are for a drive-killing mistake. It’s the principle behind the old rubber-band or bend-but-don’t-break defenses. Sooner or later the offense will make mistake. And the only way to combat that is explosive plays.

Saturday night, UK got some explosive plays from its running backs. There were four runs of 20 or more yards. Only one of those came in the second half, however. When Tennessee realized that Kentucky just was not going to throw the football, the Vols adjusted their defense accordingly. Even UK center Drake Jackson admitted that at times the Vols had 10 defenders “in the box” ready to play the run.

“We’re not overly explosive right now, we’re pretty one-dimensional. I think everybody knows that,” Stoops said. “We’re trying the best we can and in certain situations in games it’s a weakness for us, not so much a strength. So you’ve got to make sure you play to your strengths to give yourself an opportunity to win the game.”

Translation: Stick to your strength, i.e. running the football behind Bowden, for an opportunity to win the game. But you must find a way to get the ball in the end zone to actually win the game. Saturday, Kentucky couldn’t do that.

Stoops said Smith was available to play quarterback, but the staff decided to stick with Bowden. My guess is that won’t change Saturday at Vanderbilt. The Commodores are 2-7. They just lost 56-0 at Florida. Do you risk going with what you don’t know (Smith after a four-game layoff) over what you do know (Bowden) in a game you should win? And with UT Martin on the schedule for Nov. 23, a win in Nashville would almost certainly clinch a fourth straight bowl trip for Stoops’ program.

So despite the bitter loss to Tennessee, I doubt the Lynn Bowden Experience is done. Not yet.

Next game

Kentucky at Vanderbilt

3:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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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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