Back in 2016, former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson took the college football world by storm, finishing his sophomore campaign with 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards, and a combined 51 touchdown scores en route to the Heisman trophy.
Whether you liked Louisville or not, fans across the nation tuned in every weekend to see the magic Jackson put on display every time he touched the football. That trend continued in the NFL, as the former Cardinal is now the overwhelming favorite to win league Most Valuable Player honors in his second year as the quarterback of the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens.
But what if I told you the magic we saw with Jackson every time he rushed the ball during his Heisman campaign would be somehow topped by another quarterback 70 miles down the road just three years later?
Now before Louisville fans burn me at the stake for comparing Kentucky receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. to Jackson – one of the greatest college football players in the history of the sport – let me preface by saying this doesn’t account for passing numbers on Jackson’s end, nor does it factor in Bowden’s numbers as a pure receiver or returner. The offenses were also obviously substantially different, with Kentucky utilizing the run game 90% of the time this year with Bowden in the backfield compared to Louisville’s 55% with Jackson in 2016.
But numbers are numbers, and if you take a look at both players as pure running threats, Bowden was more effective on the ground in 2019 than Jackson was during his Heisman campaign in 2016.
In eight games as a starter this season at Kentucky, Bowden Jr. rushed for 1,369 total yards and 13 touchdowns, good for an average of 171.13 yards, 7.96 yards per carry, and 1.625 touchdowns per game.
During Jackson’s Heisman campaign during his second year at Louisville, the former Cardinal averaged 120.84 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry, and 1.615 touchdowns per contest.
In four of Bowden’s eight starts, the Wildcat playmaker managed 195 yards or more on the ground four times, 200-plus yards three times, 230-plus yards twice, and 284 yards once. Jackson broke the 190 yard mark just twice, including one 200-plus yard game in his freshman season (226 vs. Texas A&M in the 2015 Music City Bowl).
Despite the significant difference in run-to-pass ratio, the Cardinals still managed 525 total rushing attempts in Bobby Petrino’s high-octane offense compared to 584 attempts for UK under Eddie Gran in 2019 (398 in eight games with Bowden in the backfield). During his time as starter, though, Bowden received 172 carries, roughly 43% of attempts. AJ Rose, Chris Rodriguez, and Kavosiey Smoke split up the majority 50%, finishing the year with 83 carries, 60 carries, and 55 carries in that span, respectively, while backup quarterbacks and reserve running backs made up the final 7% of carries.
In 2016, Jackson rushed the ball a whopping 49% of Louisville’s overall attempts, including 30 more rushes than passing attempts. Louisville ran 961 total plays in 2016, while Kentucky ran just 830 plays on the year, including 398 rushes and 38 passes for 436 total plays under Bowden. 54.5 plays per game with Bowden in the backfield compared to 73.9 plays per game under Jackson, which slightly compensates for the former Cardinal’s 31.5 passing attempts per contest.
More passing attempts and a higher rushing rate tells the story of Jackson’s gaudy numbers, but also shows just how ridiculously efficient and impressive Bowden was as a runner in 2019.
Focusing more specifically on Bowden’s numbers and the magnitude of his success in his third and final year as a Wildcat, the superstar playmaker broke Johnny Manziel’s all-time NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a bowl game with 233. Manziel is now second on the list with 229 rushing yards in the 2013 Cotton Bowl followed by none other than Lamar Jackson, who managed 226 yards on the ground in the 2015 Music City Bowl.
After his 233-yard outing on Tuesday afternoon, Bowden finished the season with three 200-yard rushing games, tying Moe Williams for most 200-yard rushing games in a season and career. It was also his seventh 100-yard rushing game, extending his single-season school record for the most 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback.
Following Kentucky’s 37-30 victory over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, UK head coach Mark Stoops said Bowden was “one of the best” to ever wear Kentucky across his chest, adding that if he played quarterback all season, he feels he would’ve been a Heisman finalist.
“Really, nothing he does surprises me,” the Kentucky head coach said. “Everything he does, he competes, he cares about his teammates and, you know, you can’t ever count him out. … If he would have played like that, if we would’ve started him at quarterback, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that he would be in New York at the Heisman [Trophy Presentation]. You can’t take away from Joe [Burrow] and people that were there, incredible players, but this guy right here is one of the best players in the country. He showed that.”
After taking a closer look at the numbers and comparing him to a previous Heisman winner, Stoops has a valid point.
Not bad for a wide receiver.