Sawyer Smith’s only snap was a quarterback sneak, a crucial play on the first series that converted a fourth down and ultimately led to a Kentucky touchdown. Aside from that one play, Kentucky’s offense was all Bowden Ball.
Why did UK almost exclusively run with Bowden? The answer to that question is complicated.
First and foremost, Kentucky’s first offensive possession with Bowden at quarterback was a masterpiece. A 17-play, 75-yard drive that took 10:18, it was the longest scoring possession in terms of plays and time since Mark Stoops became UK’s head coach.
Kentucky’s offense moved the ball well against a good Tennessee defense. They had trouble when it was time to score, as Stoops explained Monday morning.
“Every week we look at the best opportunity to win and you look at a big portion of that game and you just look at the drive chart, it frustrated or baffles all of us in how you lose a game like that. But you look at the possessions and where we went, we had one three-and-out all day. We had one three-and-out all day and that’s the first possession of the second half,” Stoops said.
“After that we only had three more drives. We drive it for nine plays, ends on downs. We drive it for another nine plays starting from our own five-yard line and goes all the way into Tennessee territory again and overcome a holding call that was essentially a 22-yard swing and end on downs again there. Then the last drive, you take it 12 plays and end up on the 2-yard line. So, that’s tough to answer, right?”
In total, Kentucky reached Tennessee territory in seven of their nine offensive possessions. Bowden Ball worked well, until the Cats reached ‘no man’s land’ around the Tennessee 35-yard line, too far to kick a field goal and too close to punt. On the first drive of the game, going for it on fourth down worked twice. It failed on the next three attempts, including the potential game-winner at the two-yard line.
“Put yourself in these shoes, because that is a lot of good against a good defensive team. It is just a matter of finding some explosive plays. But it is a balance and something to think about. It is hard when you only have nine possessions in a game. It is a lot easier after the fact to say, ‘Hey, give Sawyer (Smith) three series.’ But every play and every series is so important and again with Lynn (Bowden) we have been very effective and we’ve been moving the football.”
To put it simply, Kentucky’s margin of error decreased significantly following Terry Wilson’s injury. Sawyer Smith could have entered the game to run UK’s base offense, but if it didn’t work, there goes a third of the Cats’ offensive possessions.
“The efficiency was pretty darn good. So that is a tough balance right there. It’s a fair question and it’s hard to do. Put it like this, the last three drives – nine plays, nine plays, 12 plays.” If just one of those ends in a touchdown, we aren’t having this discussion. If he put in Smith for just one drive and it failed, Stoops is right: “You’re sitting here calling me a compete idiot.”
Kentucky had every chance to win. They just were a few plays away from a victory.
“This is at least the second time this year where I come in here and we are talking about a play here and a play there. That is our job to find that, our job to do it. Felt like our guys, again, competed extremely well and we had an opportunity to win in a game like that,” said Stoops.
“That is the key, as we all know, that comes down to winning and losing, converting one of those at the end.”