Last Monday, Mark Stoops announced Terry Wilson as Kentucky’s starting quarterback going into the Central Michigan game, and it was a decision most expected. The junior college transfer got off to a slow start when fall camp came around, but quickly turned it around in the latter half during scrimmages. By the end, Wilson separated himself from redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak through the air and on the ground.
“Terry Wilson will open up game one as the starter,” Stoops said at Monday’s press conference. “He’s won the quarterback battle. It’s been an ongoing battle, as you know. I have great respect for all our quarterbacks. I feel like we have a great quarterback room. The other quarterbacks with Gunnar and Danny, in particular, they’ve put up a great fight and they’ve done a lot of things in a lot of ways to win the job as well. Ultimately, with all the things that we looked at, we decided on Terry and we’re excited about Terry and what he’s going to do this week.”
Unfortunately for Wilson, his much-anticipated debut on Saturday ended with more questions than answers at the quarterback position.
He finished the day 11/18 through the air for just 78 yards to go with 38 rushing yards on nine carries. He also added two interceptions and a fumble.
The legend of “Terry Touchdown” quickly developed into “Terry Turnover.”
On his third drive of the day, Wilson found himself face-to-face with a Central Michigan defender and fumbled the ball immediately. He eventually blamed it on his sleeve getting in the way, but it wasn’t a good look regardless. The Chippewas recovered, eventually leading to three points on the board. For a player as talented with the football in his hands as Wilson, it was a careless and inexcusable muff. Mistake No. 1.
He followed it up on the next drive with a solid throw to CJ Conrad that resulted in a pass interference call in favor of the Cats, a 14-yard dart to Josh Ali, and then AJ Rose scampered 55 yards for a touchdown. Kentucky took over the lead and Wilson seemed to settle in a bit.
On the next series and his very next throw, he was picked off in the end zone by a Central Michigan defender. In his defense, Tavin Richardson was tripped up in the end zone in what should have been a pass interference call. It was a solid ball by Wilson, and would’ve likely been a touchdown to Richardson if the redshirt junior receiver was able to finish out his route. Nonetheless, mistake No. 2 for Wilson, and it led to seven points the other way. To add to the suffering, Lynn Bowden fumbled for a CMU scoop-and-score on the very next play, pushing the Chippewa lead to ten.
Wilson followed it up with back-to-back misses to David Bouvier and CJ Conrad, though he added a 13-yard run to keep the drive moving. Benny Snell saved the day with a 52-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to just three.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and the Cats had a golden opportunity to retake the lead before half. Wilson had a solid broken tackle and scramble (ended up being for no gain, but it looked pretty), and then followed it up with a beautiful throw to Lynn Bowden for an 11-yard first down. And then he had his worst throw of the day, throwing a horrible duck to the sideline which was picked off by Central Michigan’s Gage Kreski for 36 yards to the Kentucky 10-yard line. To make matters worse, Wilson was hit after the throw and suffered a shoulder injury, immediately heading to the locker room once he was able to stand on his own.
Once again, the Kentucky defense did their part, holding the Chippewas to just six yards and a field goal in just 28 seconds. With Wilson still in the locker room getting his shoulder checked out, it gave Gunnar Hoak the opportunity to come in and take the lead before half and reenergize the Kentucky sideline and fanbase.
First play, beautiful ball to David Bouvier over the middle for 19 yards, followed by another to the senior wideout on the sideline to stop the clock. Sihiem King busted through for eight yards to move the chains with 55 ticks remaining. Hoak then tossed it to the outside to Bouvier again, missing and drilling CMU’s Trevor Apsey in the chest for what should’ve been an easy pick-six the other way. Hoak took advantage of the gift, hitting Bouvier again for a wide open 24-yard touchdown over the middle of the field.
Kentucky took a 21-20 lead as halftime hit, and as you’d imagine, Hot Take Twitter blew up. Hoak was instantly Tom Brady, knocking out Drew Bledsoe and taking the team to the promise land. You wouldn’t dare put Wilson back in the game with the way the backup was balling, right?
And then a reality check hit in the second half. Hoak took the field for two drives after the intermission, each leading to a three-and-out for the Cats. The new quarterback hit Bowden high on the outside, leading to just two yards and a rib-crushing takedown by the Chippewa defender. He was then rushed out of the pocket and then skipped a pass across the dirt short to Dorian Baker. Punt.
Rose moved the chains with runs of seven, ten, and ten yards, followed by a four-yard run by King. Hoak then sailed two balls well past Baker and Bouvier, forcing the punt yet again. The Hoak hype train quickly simmered down a bit.
Wilson came in to replace Hoak, and immediately led the Cats down the field for Snell’s second touchdown of the day. He had one solid ball to Bowden that resulted in a pass interference call and another 10-yard pickup to the CMU ten on a scramble.
On the next drive, Wilson found CJ Conrad for a short gain on the sideline, and followed it up by threading the needle on a 21-yard pass to Baker over the middle. It was easily his best throw of the day, and it led to another touchdown by Rose near the goal line.
In his final drive, Wilson added another eight-yard dash and a 12-yard first down throw to Clevan Thomas out of the slot. He marched down the field to the Central Michigan 31, where he made his only real mistake of the second half. On a fourth-and-eight conversion attempt, he tried to hit Sihiem King on a left-sideline wheel route, bouncing the throw off of CMU’s Malik Fountain’s helmet. If Fountain had turned his head around in time, there was a solid chance for an interception. Wilson will have to clean up those close throws going forward.
But overall, it was a successful and much-needed second half performance.
As Garden City coach Jeff Sims told KSR yesterday, “Where Terry makes mistakes is when he tries to be too much Peyton Manning and not enough Russell Wilson.” That throw to King was an example of that, where he went for the fancy conversion instead of going with what he knows and thrives at.
But again, this is Wilson’s first time under center as a college quarterback, and the mistakes are going to come. The way he plays football is a bit high-risk, high-reward. He’s going to make plays that you haven’t seen at Kentucky in years, and he’s also going to make some boneheaded rookie mistakes.
Even at JUCO, he threw for 2,113 passing yards (58 percent) and 26 touchdowns… but added 11 interceptions. He rushed for 518 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in 11 games… but added four fumbles.
“You think flaws, I see experience,” Sims told KSR. “You’ve got to realize he was still a first-year quarterback for us last year.”
He’s very new to college football and has to work the kinks out, but that will absolutely come in time. One mediocre half of football should not push fans to the ledge.
As we have seen with Patrick Towles’ opening touchdown drive against Mississippi State and Drew Barker’s magical scoring possession against Vanderbilt in each of their debuts, one pretty score doesn’t tell the whole story, and shouldn’t be used as a driving point for the replacement of a quarterback that coaches watched throughout an entire camp.
If you’ll remember, Stephen Johnson started his career with a reality check in The Swamp, followed by a solid comeback effort against New Mexico State when Barker suffered his season-ending back injury. He tossed for 310 yards and three touchdowns on 77 percent passing. The next game, however, Johnson threw for just 135 yards and an interception, followed by an 89-yard performance against Alabama.
His worst game of the season, and likely his career, came immediately after against Vanderbilt, when he tossed for just 49 yards on 10-24 passing, no touchdowns, and an interception. And the stats don’t even tell the full story. There were at least seven balls dropped by Commodore defenders that should have been picked off, and the completions Johnson did have weren’t pretty in the slightest.
He was trending downward, and folks were calling for Hoak to replace the junior college transfer as a true freshman.
Johnson finally turned it around, highlighted by his 338-yard, three-touchdown performance against Louisville. He led the team to back-to-back seven win seasons, and cemented himself as the biggest fan-favorite quarterback since Andre Woodson and Jared Lorenzen. There was an adjustment period, but things worked out in the end.
And there’s a solid shot Wilson will follow a similar path.
“I’ve been very loyal to the starting quarterbacks here and they have not been on a short leash,” Stoops told the this past Monday. “We’ve been very supportive of that. If it comes to a point where you absolutely have to make a change, we’ll take another look. I want to be loyal to the starting quarterback and give him every opportunity and not have him looking over his shoulder as well.”
The coaching staff shouldn’t, and likely won’t, go away from Wilson at Florida next week. They watched him over the course of an entire fall camp, where he flat-out won the job. He has the talent, he just needs to build the experience.