There was no hiding from the fact that this was a monster game for the Kentucky football program. The team was fresh off embarrassing road losses to both Mississippi State and South Carolina after blowing a double-digit lead against Florida. Dealing with all kinds of quarterback injuries, the Wildcats had to figure out some type of spark in the bye week.
The decision was to move Lynn Bowden, Jr. to full-time quarterback and the gamble paid off after two weeks of preparation. The Youngstown, Ohio native was exhilarating in his first career start and Wildcats went on a 24-7 blitz in the final 35 minutes to win the football game.
Behind a unique offensive performance and a defense that made some timely stops, the Wildcats gave Mark Stoops his first SEC West win over a school not named Mississippi State and set UK up to have a nice finish in the last six games.
The Wildcats collected 418 yards (330 rushing, 88 passing) on 66 plays and put up 6.3 yards per snap. That was the offense’s second highest output of the season and their highest in an SEC game since the road win at Florida. The chunk play returned with the Wildcats collecting six plays of 20-plus yards with four of them occurring in the final quarter.
Lynn Bowden’s 51-yard run didn’t ice the game, but his 15-yard sprint on the next snap certainly did. The dual-threat quarterback finished with 196 rushing yards on 24 carries and he would have certainly got to the 200-yard mark if Kentucky doesn’t go to the victory formation on the final two plays. He provided the juice, but UK needed their running backs to do some heavy lifting.
A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke combined for 135 yards on 27 carries to help power this ground game in between attempts from Bowden. Each provided a big play in the fourth quarter as Kentucky pulled away from the Hogs. The Wildcats are still struggling with their short-yardage offense, but when you rush for over 300 yards you are going to win a lot of football games. It was the sixth time they’ve reached that feat under Eddie Gran and the Wildcats are 5-1 when they hit that number.
It was a run heavy attack, but you still have prove you can throw the football. While this is never going to be an offense that goes all in on the pass with Bowden behind center, the future NFL wide receiver showed he can make some necessary throws to move the chains. The most impressive happened on a third-and-long in the red zone.
The star player can deliver the fade and also made some nice throws to Justin Rigg across the middle. He missed Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. on a beautifully designed throwback in the third quarter but otherwise did what he was asked. He’s limited as a passer, but can make more throws than you would think.
Whenever you have that big of day on the ground, your guys in the trenches have to be putting some work in. Again, the short-yardage offense needs work, but UK was moving people in the run game. The group gave up just one sack in limited in pass pro snaps, but also got some help from the tight ends. Keaton Upshaw had a beautiful downfield block to spring Lynn Bowden, Jr. on a 24-yard touchdown to put UK up for good in the final quarter. However, the Wildcats lost Landon Young to injury in the final quarter and his status will be something to monitor closely moving forward.
The performance by the offense was huge boost for the program for a lot of reasons. There was no denying that this group stunk up the last two games and Kentucky’s season would have been headed for a disaster if they didn’t fix things fast. With two weeks to prepare, they went all in on the Lynn Bowden, Jr. experience and it paid off.
UK established the run, converted third downs, scored on red zone trips, and created splash plays. This success allowed them to establish the tempo and make Arkansas play on their terms. That hasn’t happened the last two games and that will have to remain a trend if Kentucky hopes to continue winning football games.
Kentucky allowed 305 yards (183 rushing, 122 passing) on 57 plays and that was a yards per play total of 5.4. For the third time this season, UK held its opponent to 5.5 yards per less and that should win you some football games. With Nick Starkel struggling, the pass defense excelled while the run defense still needs a lot of work.
Rakeem Boyd entered tonight as the SEC’s second leading rusher and he showed why on the second play from scrimmage. The slasher can house it when given a crease and UK got stretched thin immediately out of the gate. After settling in, the Wildcats gave up 6.1 yards per carry and it was the second time this season an opponent put up that large a number. However, thinks to the style of a Chad Morris offense, the Hogs only attempted 27 non-sack rushes and that was a good thing because they put up over 201 yards in a small amount of attempts. This is a huge concern going into Athens next week.
There’s no hiding from the fact that the Wildcats are extremely young in the secondary and that youth is getting thrown to the fire. Brad White is playing a ton of freshman and sophomores in the backend and with that comes some growing pains. There were multiple coverage penalties, but other than that this group continues to grow.
Tonight might have been that group’s best work as they held a pass happy offense to less than 50 percent completions and just 4.5 yards per pass. This was the lowest total of the season for the Hogs and it was clear UK was ready for the challenge. After Nick Starkel was pulled, Ben Hicks had some success but the pass rush delivered when it was needed most.
Calvin Taylor, Jr. continues to play excellent football and the redshirt senior collected a huge third down sack to take Arkansas out of the red zone down just four. T.J Carter followed it up with a pressure on the next play that created a turnover on downs. Quinton Bohanna recorded the second sack of his career on a third down earlier in the fourth quarter and Boogie Watson continues to answer the bell by recording a sack fumble in the first quarter.
The Wildcats gave up too many third down conversions (6-of-13), but they did get some timely stops against the SEC’s worst red zone offense. Outside of the long run to begin the game, the last two Arkansas scoring drives were a product of possession that started inside the UK 35. The defense was put in some bad spots and they answered the challenge while showing some growth along the way.
Grant McKinniss continues to be a great kickoff specialist and the former punter now has a touchback rate of 82.1 percent as he is helping to eliminate any return opportunities. Max Duffy continues to do his thing with two punts downed inside the 20 with another one going 50-plus yards. However, Duffy punted out of his endzone and outkicked his coverage a bit and that setup Arkansas with a very short field that would result in a touchdown. However, Matt Ruffolo was the story of the night.
The walk-on missed a 47-yard attempt in the second quarter, but drilled one from 51 yards on UK’s first possession of the third quarter. After a sack and false start killed a promising drive, UK’s new kicked saved the team with a big kick to help keep the momentum building. UK should feel good about their kicking situation moving forward.
There were some issues in punt return and they were mainly due to a muff by Josh Ali on the first punt by Arkansas. UK was fortunate to recover and if they didn’t it could have been a totally different game. In the kick return department, Zach Johnson was very serviceable in putting up 48 yards in two returns.
There is no hiding from how big this game was for Kentucky. A loss likely meant a 5-7 season at best with your bowl streak ending while a win still gives you a legit chance at a 7-5 record and some momentum moving forward. With major quarterback issues and a hangover after the Florida loss that lasted two weeks, the Wildcats needed some juice. They got that from the best player on the team.
After a couple games of getting impatient with establishing the run, UK had to stick with the game plan this week after a slow start and it paid off. With some nifty option plays and some creation from a dynamic playmaker, Kentucky had their best offensive night of the season and gained some swagger that was lost in that fourth quarter loss to Florida.
The Wildcats are at their best under Eddie Gran when they are able to run the ball at will and throw no more than 20 times. This is where the coaching staff is most comfortable and that was easy to see in the win. The Wildcats were able to keep their defense fresh while riding an offensive line that led the way to over 300 yards being recorded on the ground. The result was exactly what the program needed and doing it after being down 13-0 makes it even more impressive.
Big picture moving forward is that Kentucky should have won that game. The Wildcats have a better roster than Arkansas at the moment and with an extra week to prepare, they should have been able to scheme up some things for Lynn Bowden, Jr. to have success at quarterback. Sometimes that can be easier said than done and we got to see some proof of concept on Saturday.
Moving forward, the Wildcats need to build on all the positives. The dominant ground game appears to be back and we should see a group that plays confident in the final six games. After the win, the staff now knows what Bowden is most comfortable with on the ground game and can now work to build the passing attack. A young defense continues to grow and now must figure out how to start fast. There’s plenty more things to grow with four home games remaining and a very winnable road trip to Nashville.
On to Georgia.