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Game day: Kentucky vs. Arkansas
Click below for more of Kentucky.com’s coverage of Saturday’s Kentucky-Arkansas football game at Kroger Field in Lexington.
Its season teetering on the brink and with no good option to play quarterback, Kentucky dialed up an oldie but goodie.
For the third time in the past 11 years, a “wide receiver playing quarterback” led the Wildcats to a desperately-needed victory.
In the days leading up to flanker Lynn Bowden’s first start as a quarterback since his days at Warren Harding High School in Ohio, the junior fretted that he was so excited, his demeanor would give UK’s secret away.
“You can ask any of my teammates,” Bowden said. “They were all like, ‘What is he so happy about?’”
With Bowden turning in one of the stellar individual performances in the 21st century history of Kentucky football, the Wildcats (3-3, 1-3 SEC) scored a 24-20 victory over Arkansas (2-4, 0-3 SEC) before a crowd of 57,060 at Kroger Field.
On the night UK honored the memory of the late Jared Lorenzen pegged to the ex-Kentucky quarterback’s memorable performance in 2003’s seven-overtime loss to Arkansas, Bowden produced another showing Wildcats fans will long savor.
The 6-foot-1, 206-pound Youngstown, Ohio, product ran 24 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns and completed seven of 11 passes for 78 yards and a TD.
“I am so proud of Lynn, obviously, for what he has done and how he has prepared for the last couple of weeks,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.
Football programs have identities. Penn State is “Linebacker U.” In the Lincoln Riley coaching era, Oklahoma has become “Transfer Quarterback U.” Kentucky’s quirky niche seems to be “Wide Receiver Playing Quarterback U.”
In 2008, with its offensive-playmaking corps depleted by injuries, UK asked wideout Randall Cobb to move to quarterback before the season’s ninth game.
On the road at Mississippi State, Cobb ran for a touchdown and threw for one and led UK to a 14-13 victory that made it bowl-eligible.
Three years later, with no scholarship quarterback healthy enough to play, Kentucky surprised Tennessee by using wide receiver Matt Roark at QB. Roark ran for 124 yards and led UK to an improbable 10-7 victory that snapped an oppressive 26-game losing streak to the Rocky Toppers.
On Saturday night, Stoops and offensive playcaller Eddie Gran found themselves in a similarly dire position.
UK lost its starting quarterback, Terry Wilson, to a season-ending knee injury in this year’s second game. His backup, Troy graduate transfer Sawyer Smith, has suffered multiple nagging injuries that have rendered him increasingly ineffective as the season has progressed.
After a listless offensive showing in the 24-7 loss at South Carolina two weeks ago, Stoops and Co. decided to turn to Bowden against Arkansas.
“Obviously, Lynn was a little bit of a wild card,” Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “But we were in a tough spot. Sawyer Smith is banged up. Our trainers kept telling us, ‘You’ve got to give him time to heal.’ So, we decided to try to win this game with Lynn.”
Given two weeks to prepare thanks to an open date, Hinshaw’s comfort with the idea of using Bowden at QB grew with each passing day.
“When we talked to him about playing quarterback full time, he totally bought in,” Hinshaw said. “He was early to every one of my meetings. He watched extra film. He was constantly asking questions. He was just tremendous in the quarterback room.”
After Kentucky spotted Arkansas a 13-0 lead, Bowden brought the Cats back.
Confounding a Razorbacks defense stacked in the box, Bowden completed back-to-back passes of 12 and 31 yards to tight end Justin Rigg. That jump-started a 75-yard drive just before halftime that culminated with a 3-yard TD run by Bowden that pulled UK within 13-7.
After intermission, Bowden got better and better. He threw a beautiful back-shoulder fade to Clevan Thomas for a 10-yard touchdown that gave Kentucky a 17-13 lead with 1:50 left in the third quarter.
Hinshaw all but beamed talking about the read Bowden made to make the TD throw possible.
“We called double fade routes for the inside (receivers),” Hinshaw said. “They doubled Keaton (Upshaw) to the boundary. Lynn went to the single coverage and threw a great ball.”
After backup quarterback Ben Hicks rallied Arkansas to a 20-17 advantage, Bowden trumped the Hogs.
Aided by long runs from running backs Kavosiey Smoke (25 yards) and A.J. Rose (27 yards), Bowden led a 75-yard march to the game-winning TD. After dropping back to pass, Bowden scrambled around right end and darted 24 yards for the winning score.
“It felt like a little homecoming thing,” Bowden said of his return to the QB position.
History suggests that the longer you ask a wide receiver to play quarterback, the less effective it will be. After Cobb won his first start for Kentucky in 2008, he lost his next three.
Still, if Kentucky perseveres through this season of adversity and becomes bowl-eligible, there’s every chance we will look back on the game the Wildcats won with a wide receiver playing quarterback as the year’s pivotal moment.