Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s win over Arkansas

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 24-20 win over Arkansas on Saturday night at Kroger Field:

1. Lynn Bowden might have saved the season

The former high school quarterback went back to his roots on Saturday night, trading his wide receiver position for a spot behind center in place of the still-not-100-percent Sawyer Smith. And from start to finish, the junior from Ohio proved that when you’ve lost three straight games and your back is to the wall, it’s not a bad idea to put the ball in the hands of your best player as many times as possible.

Bowden rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. After Arkansas had taken a 20-17 lead, his 24-yard TD run with 6:53 remaining put Kentucky back in front. His 51-yard run on UK’s final drive sealed the deal. Plus, Bowden completed seven of 11 passes for 78 yards, including a 10-yard TD pass to Clevan Thomas that gave UK its first lead 17-13 with 1:50 left in the third quarter.

With Smith playing wounded (shoulder, wrist, leg) in road losses to Mississippi State (28-13) and South Carolina (24-7), Mark Stoops and his staff decided that last week’s open date would be the perfect time to make the switch at quarterback and re-tool the game plan to fit Bowden’s skills. And, oh yeah, keep it a secret.

“That was my biggest worry, that people would find out,” Bowden said.

2. Give the coaches a game ball, on both sides of the ball

It was the much-maligned offensive coordinator Eddie Gran who decided after his troops managed a meager 212 yards in the loss at South Carolina that he would switch to Bowden at quarterback. Even when Smith showed improvement during this past week, Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw decided to stick with Bowden.

“We had a lot of time invested in the game plan,” said Stoops afterward.

Gran admitted afterward that never in his long career had he moved a wide receiver to quarterback. But desperate times calls for desperate measures. And the stakes were high. (More on that later.) And the OC designed an attack that fit Bowden’s and play-making abilities.

“We knew that coming into this game we had to run the football,” said Gran after UK rushed for 330 yards.

Speaking of running the ball, second play of the game the Razorbacks hit the Cats with a 74-yard touchdown run by Rakeem Boyd. After that, however, defensive coordinator Brad White’s unit held Arkansas to just 107 yards on the ground and 228 yards overall. The Razorbacks only other touchdown was set up by a UK punt out of its own end zone and long punt return. That led to a 29-yard Arkansas TD drive and a 20-17 lead.

After UK had answered for a 24-20 lead, defensive linemen Calvin Taylor and T.J. Carter came up with the biggest plays of the night. Taylor sacked quarterback Ben Hicks on a third-and-8 at the UK 15. Then Taylor hit Hicks as he attempted to pass on fourth-and-15. The wounded duck fell incomplete.

3. There’s a huge difference between 3-3 and 2-4

As Stoops said afterward, every game is big. Still, even the coach admitted this was a much-needed victory for a team that had lost three straight and was winless in the SEC. At the halfway point, the Cats are now 3-3 overall and 1-3 in the league. They now only need to go 3-3 over the second half to clinch a fourth straight bowl trip.

Next up is a trip to Georgia. The Bulldogs are no doubt barking mad after Saturday’s 20-17 onetime loss to South Carolina. The only way Kirby Smart’s team can reach the College Football Playoff now is to win out and beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. After the trip to Athens, the Cats return home to face Missouri before the second bye week of the season.

But UK’s second half opponents wouldn’t matter if Stoops’ squad didn’t play any better than it had in those losses in Starkville and Columbia. “I thought we played with an edge tonight,” said Gran. “I thought we were competitive on every play. It wasn’t always perfect, but I thought we competed.”

That was especially true on the game-winning drive. After Arkansas had gone up by three, UK took over at its own 25 with 10:35 left. Kavosiey Smoke picked up 20 yards on the drive’s first play. Three plays later, on third-and-8, A.J. Rose ripped off a 27-yard run. Two plays after that, there was Bowden going 24 yards for the touchdown.

The touchdown that might have saved Kentucky’s season.

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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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