Mark Story

After another Lynn Bowden masterpiece, can UK afford NOT to use him at quarterback?

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Game day: Kentucky vs. Missouri

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From the moment Kentucky installed wide receiver Lynn Bowden as its starting quarterback in place of an ailing Sawyer Smith three games ago, one thing seemed laser clear:

Long term, the key to UK winning enough games to become bowl-eligible for a fourth straight season depended on getting Smith back healthy enough to play.

Against rugged SEC defenses, history shows there will inevitably be diminishing returns to having to use a wide receiver at QB.

Bowden is trampling every bit of that theory.

On Saturday night, playing in a monsoon, Bowden ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns as UK (4-4, 2-4 SEC) defeated Missouri (5-3, 2-2 SEC) 29-7 before a water-logged Kroger Field crowd announced at 48,446.

“What can you say about Lynn?” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops asked. “Amazing. Just so tough, so tough — and talented.”

Everyone knew Bowden was talented. There’s a reason the wide receiver/kick returner made those mid-season All-America teams as an all-purpose player.

What has been eye-catching in Bowden’s three-game stint as Kentucky’s quarterback is the old-school toughness on display.

“He’s getting hit, grabbed, pulled, horse-collared,” said UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. “He just gets up, ‘I’m ready to go. I’m going to keep going.’ Our team sees that.”

Early last season, Stoops declared Wildcats pass-rushing star Josh Allen as the best defensive player in the country. Allen, of course, went on to sweep the major national Defensive Player of the Year awards.

“I would say the same thing about Lynn,” Stoops said. “There (are) a lot of tough players out there nationally. But I’d like to see one who is tougher than (Bowden).”

As the rain fell in sheets Saturday night, Bowden did work. “Since I was a young kid,” he says, “I’ve always played my best games in the rain.”

The electric 6-foot-1, 196-pound junior set up Kentucky’s first TD with a pretty throw on a deep post pattern. It yielded a 44-yard gain on an acrobatic catch by Bryce Oliver that took the ball to the Mizzou 19.

Bowden then ran a fake pitchout that became a counter play that went 18 yards to the Missouri 1-yard line. Kavosiey Smoke took it in from there.

Just before halftime, Bowden scored Kentucky’s third TD on a gutty, 10-yard run up the middle, breaking tackles as he went in.

In the final quarter, Bowden put Mizzou away for good with a 33-yard scoring jaunt. The TD came one play after he had been absolutely crushed for a 1-yard loss by Mizzou safety Tyree Gillespie.

All this came on a night when Bowden was briefly knocked from the game after a Missouri player rolled up on his legs; was the victim of a violent jerk of his face-mask that yielded a penalty; and the recipient of some pad-popping direct shots from Mizzou defenders in the final quarter.

Asked afterward how he was feeling, Bowden smiled. “Got some cuts on my hands, some new tattoos,” he said.

In the three games since a desperate Kentucky asked Bowden to return to his high school position of QB, this is what he’s done:

He ran for 196 yards and two scores to help UK snap a three-game losing streak with a 24-20 conference victory over Arkansas.

At Georgia in a driving rain storm against the No. 10 team in the country, Bowden ran for 99 yards on a defense that had not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.

Saturday night, in his second straight monsoon game, Bowden directed UK to its fifth straight win over Missouri.

Looking ahead, after an open week, Kentucky has remaining games, in order, with Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, Tennessee Martin and Louisville.

The Wildcats have to win at least two to make this a bowl season. Beating UT for only the third time since 1984 and besting U of L in Lexington for the first time since 2009 would leave a much nicer taste with the Big Blue Nation.

Fact is, the game may come where the Cats get behind, have no choice but to throw the ball, and must go back to the drop-back passing Smith.

The graduate transfer from Troy played sparingly Saturday and is said to be making significant steps toward regaining his health.

In the meantime, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran seems stoked to have extra time to come up with new ways to use Bowden at QB to torment defenses.

“We’ve got two more weeks now to put some new wrinkles in and have some fun with it,” Gran said.

Yet the main reason Kentucky has to stick with Bowden at QB moving forward is that the ample toughness he has on display seems to have infused the entire Wildcats team.

Says Hinshaw: “I think there is no doubt there is leadership there. Lynn brings leadership, the team sees his toughness. And the team wraps around that.”

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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.