By GUY RAMSEY, UK Athletics
Since Lynn Bowden Jr. moved to quarterback, Kentucky has reforged its identity and reached bowl eligibility for the fourth straight year, with records falling along the way.
The Wildcats have done all of it, nearly without exception, by running the football. At least until the very end.
On the final play of his college career, Bowden delivered the game-winning touchdown pass.
“They put it in my hands,” Bowden said. “Glory to God. My o-line, they held up. Like I said, y’all said I couldn’t throw, so over the top it goes.”
Even as Bowden led UK to wins in five of its final seven regular-season games, piled up yards at an alarming rate and won the Paul Hornung Award, questions persisted. Could the Wildcats win a big game playing this retooled style built around on Bowden’s once-in-a-generation talents? Would Bowden be able execute in the passing game when he absolutely had to? Would UK’s receivers be ready?
The answer to all those questions – after Bowden threw a 13-yard touchdown to Josh Ali with 15 seconds in a 37-30 win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl – is a resounding yes.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Mark Stoops said. “Nothing he does surprises me. Everything he does, he competes, he cares about his teammates and you can’t ever count him out. Just so proud of him and how far he’s come.”
As unlikely as the final play might have been, the drive it capped could not have been a more fitting final chapter of Bowden’s career and his time as UK’s QB. It began with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter after the Wildcat defense had limited the damage following a turnover by the offense for the second straight drive.
“Really, in my mind, I was thinking of an eight-minute drive,” Stoops said. “I really was.”
Such is Stoops’ faith in Bowden, and the junior delivered. Over the ensuing 17 plays and, yes, eight minutes, Bowden rushed for 53 yards, handed to his running backs for another 10 and completed a key fourth-down pass to Ali.
“That kind of personifies our year,” Stoops said. “There’s ups, there’s downs, there’s good and bad, but keep on fighting through it, grinding through it, finding a way. I love this football team, our players, their fight and their determination.”
That determination was on display from the opening kick of a hard-fought and back-and-forth Belk Bowl. UK didn’t have its best defensive day of the season, but came up with stops when they were most needed. The Hokies might have known what was coming, but the UK offense still ran for 331 yards against a unit playing its final game for legendary coordinator Bud Foster.
Bowden rushed for 233 of those yards himself, setting a record for rushing yards by a quarterback in any bowl game. He also is now behind only Cam Newton on the all-time single-season rushing list for SEC quarterbacks with 1,468.
When a reporter quoted those stats to him as he fielded questions while holding his Belk Bowl MVP trophy, Bowden wasn’t interested in reflecting on his own accomplishments. Instead, he retroactively campaigned for UK’s offensive line to win the Joe Moore Award given to LSU as the nation’s best offensive line.
“I don’t see how my o-line didn’t win the award,” Bowden said. “Just look at it. It’s facts. I don’t know what else to say.”
That reaction is an encapsulation of why Bowden’s teammates played so well around him. Not only is he supremely talented, Bowden also wants to share the glory with the people who enable his success.
“It’s incredible. Just like last year with Benny (Snell Jr.), we’ve been blessed with great skill guys who have given the offensive line credit,” Logan Stenberg said. “You don’t see that very often in college football. We’re just blessed to be a part of that and have great skill players who give us credit when credit’s due. We’re out there just busting our tails trying to get the ball in the end zone.”
Next year, the Cats will be left to try to get the ball in the end zone without Bowden as he pursues his dream of an NFL career. Figuring out life after Lynn won’t be easy, but UK has the horses and the inspiration to do it.
“I don’t know if you can replace a guy like this,” Stoops said. “You really can’t. You have to build and get a bunch of good players around him and continue to develop the program. But the legacy he leaves and the example that he set for all these young guys, that’s what we need to hang on to.”
Bowden’s legacy will live on with the Big Blue Nation as well. Sensing that, Bowden wouldn’t leave the field at Bank of America Stadium until after he had taken a complete victory lap to acknowledge as many of the thousands of UK fans who made the trek to Charlotte as he could.
“The fans, they drove a long way from Kentucky,” Bowden said. “They’re coming out here to support us, I gotta show my love for them just as they love me. It wouldn’t feel right if I just left, especially my last game. I want to make sure everybody feels love from me.”
And with that perfect end, a UK legend said farewell.