By LARRY VAUGHT
As soon as Terry Wilson got injured late in the third quarter of Kentucky’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan Saturday night, backup quarterback Sawyer Smith grabbed a football and started throwing.
By the time Wilson had a brace put on his left knee and was carted off the field, Smith was on the field and ready to tell his teammates to just believe in him. Instead, teammates did that for him.
“Drake (Jackson) and those older linemen and Lynn (Bowden) and the running back (Kavosiey Smoke) said it for me. They said, ‘Let’s go.’ They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs,” Smith said after the game.
He completed five of nine passes for 76 yards and two scores — a 54-yard strike to Ahmad Wagner on his first UK pass and a 2-yard pass to Bowden with just 54 seconds to play. The final score was not a pass play coach Mark Stoops normally would have called with a 31-17 lead, but with Florida coming up next and Smith needing work with the first unit he felt he had no choice.
He apologized to Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton after the game in a conversation caught by WLEX-TV.
“I had to get him a few snaps, my guy is out for the year,” Stoops told Creighton.
If so, that’s a big blow for Kentucky — but hopefully not a fatal one for UK’s season. Remember three years ago when little-known junior college quarterback Stephen Johnson was brought in to back up Drew Barker. Barker got hurt, Johnson took over the team after an 0-2 start and led UK to a 7-5 finish and bowl bid. He did the same thing the next year as the starter from day one.
Now it is Smith’s turn. He transferred from Troy where he started the final six games last year after a knee injury to start Kaleb Barker. Smith threw for 1,699 yards and 14 touchdowns for then Troy coach Neal Brown and helped the Trojans win 10 games, including the Dollar General Bowl.
Wilson got hurt when he scrambled and was pulled down from behind on a tackle that was flagged for a horse-collar tackle.
Credit Creighton for not only understanding why Smith threw the final scoring pass but also for feeling bad over what happened to Wilson.
“He’s a good player. He’s an accurate quarterback. He’s an absolute nightmare in terms of his athleticism when running the football. You have a guy who can throw and run the ball, that’s a tough recipe,” Creighton said.
“I would like to add that there is not a single player in our program that is happy about his injury. We pray as program that no one is significantly injured during the game. I don’t know him, but it wasn’t good to see that happen. We send him our thoughts and prayers.”
Smith wasn’t wanting a repeat of last year’s injury to a starting quarterback to give him his chance to play.
“I came here to fill the need as a backup quarterback. That’s what I signed up for. I would have been fine being in here two years from now talking to you guys and walking across with a master’s (degree) in my hand,” Smith said. “But this happened. Now I want to take this team as far as we can go. You want to win every Saturday and that’s what I’m going to do.
“You understand that there can’t be a drop. You have to be ready. Next man up is the cliche thing to say, but that’s how it really is right now.”
Kentucky was leading 24-10 when Smith came into the game and he was not the least bit overwhelmed. He celebrated with Bowden after the last score and got a huge hug from punter Max Duffy once the game ended.
“It’s not fun how it happens, but it’s fun to get out there and do what I’ve been preparing for since I was a kid. Everybody wants to play in the SEC in this region of the United States,” Smith said.
Now he will certainly have his chance to start against Florida now and maybe for the rest of the season depending on whether what Stoops called a “significant” knee injury to Wilson is a season-ending blow or not.