Mark Story

At mid-season, the best and worst of Kentucky college football filled with surprises

With half of the 2019 Kentucky college football campaign in the books, let’s recognize the best and worst from what has so far been a surprising season:

Best offensive player: Lynn Bowden, Kentucky. A true multi-purprose star, Bowden is easily UK’s leading receiver with 30 catches for 348 yards. The junior from Youngstown, Ohio, was leading the SEC in both punt and kickoff returns through five games.

For UK’s sixth game, Bowden moved to quarterback. He ran for 196 yards and two touchdowns, threw a TD pass and directed Mark Stoops’ troops to a 24-20 SEC win over Arkansas.

It’s scary to imagine where Kentucky (3-3, 1-3 SEC) would be without its dynamic jack-of-all-trades.

Lynn Bowden vs. Arkansas
Kentucky star Lynn Bowden (1) celebrated after one of the three touchdowns he accounted for (two on the ground, one through the air) in UK’s 24-20 win over Arkansas. Alex Slitz

Best defensive player: DeAngelo Malone, Western Kentucky. A 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end, Malone is doing a pretty fair Josh Allen imitation this fall in Bowling Green. The Atlanta product leads the nation in tackles for loss (14) and is tied for fourth in the FBS in sacks (seven).

Both consistent and disruptive, Malone also tops the Hilltoppers (4-2) in tackles (53) and quarterback hurries (seven) and has had at least one TFL in every game.

DeAngelo Malone sacking QB.JPG
Western Kentucky defensive end DeAngelo Malone (10) leads the nation in tackles for loss (14) and is tied for fourth in the country in quarterback sacks (seven). L. Todd Spencer AP

Best game: Louisville 62, No. 19 Wake Forest 59. They will not be showing the video at defensive clinics, but a game that featured 16 touchdowns (eight by each team) and 1,188 yards of total offense (668 by Wake, 520 for U of L) was a 60-minute thrill ride.

Ethan Conley vs Wake Forest.JPG
Louisville quarterback Evan Conley, left, threw for 196 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 79 yards and one score in U of L’s wild, 62-59 upset of No. 19 Wake Forest. Nell Redmond AP

Most disappointing game: No. 9 Florida 29, Kentucky 21. For the third straight season, UK had a double-digit lead (21-10) on Florida in the fourth quarter. For the second time in three years, UK lost to UF anyway.

Most disappointing moment: Terry Wilson’s knee injury. The season-ending, torn patellar tendon suffered in the left knee of the Kentucky starting quarterback in the Wildcats’ 38-17 victory over Eastern Michigan was more than a personal misfortune for Wilson. It profoundly changed the complexion of UK’s bid to back up 2018’s 10-3 breakthrough with another above-the-norm season.

Terry Wilson carted off
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) left the field after suffering what turned out to be a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his left knee during UK’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan in the second game of the 2019 season. Alex Slitz

Best coaching job, season: Scott Satterfield, Louisville (tie). Sure, U of L is playing in an Atlantic Coast Conference that, other than Clemson, looks to be putrid. The Louisville defense remains a sieve, giving up 439 yards a game (102nd in the country).

But, so what? In Satterfield’s first year after inheriting the remnants from Bobby Petrino’s 2-10 disaster in 2018, the former Appalachian State head man has the Cards (4-2, 2-1 ACC) playing hard, scoring points (37.3 ppg, 24th in the country) and looking very viable for a bowl trip.

Satterfield celebrates with his wife after Wake.JPG
Louisville Coach Scott Satterfield celebrated with his wife, Beth, after the Cardinals defeated No. 19 Wake Forest 62-59 last Saturday. Nell Redmond AP

Best coaching job, season: Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky (tie). Sure, Helton’s first game as WKU head man was a dispiriting 35-28 home loss to FCS foe Central Arkansas. Even though Helton was brought in to reconnect Hilltoppers football to the high-scoring Jeff Brohm era, his team stands 112th in the country in total offense (337 yards a game).

But, so what? In Helton’s first year after inheriting the remains of a 3-9 team in 2018, the former WKU offensive coordinator has rallied Western (4-2, 3-0 Conference USA) to first place in C-USA’s East Division.

It appears retaining defensive coordinator Clayton White from the prior Western staff was Helton’s best call. The Hilltoppers are currently 17th in the country in total defense (allowing only 287.5 yards a game). In its four wins, WKU has held foes to 9.5 points a game.

Tyson Helton with DeAngelo Malone.JPG
Western Kentucky Coach Tyson Helton and defensive end DeAngelo Malone (10) congratulated each other after WKU’s 20-13 win over defending Conference USA champion UAB on Sept. 28. Austin Anthony AP

Best coaching job, single game: Kentucky co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. UK was riding a three-game losing streak and had no healthy scholarship quarterback the Wildcats’ coaching staff trusted enough to use. Facing a game with Arkansas that was crucial to the Kentucky season, UK moved wideout Lynn Bowden to QB.

Given extra preparation time due to an open date, Gran and Hinshaw came up with an offensive game plan that suited Bowden’s strengths and then coaxed a stellar performance from the wide receiver playing quarterback. The result was a 24-20 UK win that kept the Wildcats’ bowl hopes alive.

The Kentucky offensive brain trust of Eddie Gran, right, and Darin Hinshaw came up with a game plan that allowed wide receiver Lynn Bowden to thrive at quarterback in UK’s 24-20 win over Arkansas last week. Charles Bertram

Coach whose reputation has taken the biggest hit: Bobby Petrino. The former Louisville head man may no longer be coaching in the commonwealth. However, each success by the 2019 Cardinals makes the performance of the coach responsible for the Cards’ 2-10 train wreck in 2018 look worse.

Bobby Petrino.JPG
The success of Louisville so far in 2019 does not make the coaching job done by ex-Cardinals head man Bobby Petrino during what became a 2-10 season in 2018 look especially stellar. Stephen M. Dowell TNS

As his team prepares to face Louisville this week, even Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney seemed to swipe at Petrino.

“It’s incredibly obvious to watch the difference in where they are right now and what I saw last year in getting ready for Louisville,” Swinney said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “It’s polar opposite. It’s a lot of the same guys, but they’ve just got them playing with belief. Their effort is tremendous. ... It’s just a different deal.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.