CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The on-field celebration was supposed to be finished. Kentucky football players had mobbed each other in the end zone and then at the hastily erected stage at midfield, lifting the Belk Bowl trophy.
But Lynn Bowden had one last task to perform before he could join the ongoing celebration in the Kentucky locker room following the Wildcats’ 37-30 win over Virginia Tech: Thank as many fans as he could for making the trip to Charlotte to see him cap his college career on an unforgettable note.
“They didn’t have to accept me,” Bowden said after making a lap around the entire Bank of America Stadium field, exchanging high fives with fans leaning over the barrier to the stands. “I came here, I was a wild, young guy. I changed over these three years. … It just meant a lot to me. Last game in Kentucky blue, we went out with a bang.”
It was easy to see why so many fans wanted to pass their own congratulations onto Bowden. He had already locked up his status as a Kentucky legend before the bowl game by saving the season with his move from wide receiver to quarterback.
In his final act as a Kentucky football player though, Bowden did the one thing he had yet to do as a Wildcat: Beat a team with his arm instead of his legs.
Facing 1st-and-10 at the Virginia Tech 19-yard line with 19 seconds remaining and a timeout in hand, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knew he wanted offensive coordinator Eddie Gran to call a pass as soon as Virginia Tech used a timeout to set up its defense.
“We were thinking about running it before Virginia Tech took the timeout, but I didn’t want to take that option (to scramble) from him,” Stoops said. “…If we would have run it there and not gotten in and taken the last timeout, that kind of takes some of that out of his hands for the next couple plays.”
In the huddle, Gran called a pass play designed to go to senior wide receiver Ahmad Wagner, UK’s pass interference jump ball specialist, in the end zone, but Bowden made a change as he walked to the field.
He pulled aside junior wide receiver Josh Ali, the player lined up on the opposite side of the field from Wagner and told him to run a post route instead. The decision paid off as Ali ran by a Virginia Tech defender to catch Bowden’s lofted pass in the end zone, giving Kentucky a 31-30 lead after an extra point with 15 seconds remaining.
“It meant everything,” said Ali, who finished the game with four catches for 52 yards and the game-winning touchdown after spending most of the season as a blocker in UK’s run-heavy offense. “It also meant I was prepared for the situation, any day it came. This was a big play, and I made that.”
When Virginia Tech attempted a series of laterals to score a desperation touchdown on the final play, UK outside linebacker Jordan Wright recovered a fumble and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown as time expired, clinching 37-30 victory.
Like he had since moving to quarterback full time in Kentucky’s sixth game of the season, Bowden, who announced earlier this month the Belk Bowl would be his final game before entering the NFL draft, did most of his damage in the game rushing the ball, gaining 233 yards, most every by a quarterback in a bowl game, on 34 carries. He also completed 6 of 12 passes for 73 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
With the performance, Bowden took over the Southeastern Conference lead in rushing yards (1,486), finishing second on UK’s single-season rushing list, behind only Moe Williams (1,600 yards in 1995) despite playing most of the first five games at wide receiver.
Bowden spoiled the final game in the illustrious career of Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, a Kentucky native, helping the Wildcats rush for at least 300 yards for the seventh time in his eight games as quarterback.
“He’s done that to everybody,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “He’s a great player. He’s competitive, he’s tough, strong, never looks like he’s in a hurry out there. He’s patient, explosive. He’s a physical player. He’s a competitor.”
Bowden’s thrilling finish to his Kentucky career almost didn’t happen as ESPN cameras caught him throwing a punch during a pregame altercation between the two teams shortly after they had arrived at the stadium.
Because the fight happened more than an hour before the game, officials were prevented from ejecting anyone. A UK Radio Network sideline reporter tweeted that at least one punch had been thrown at Bowden in the fight as well.
The lingering emotion from the fight spoiled an otherwise dominant Kentucky start with two personal foul penalties that set up a 54-yard Virginia Tech field goal from kicker Brian Johnson for an early 3-0 Hokies lead. The Wildcats also had to overcome multiple penalties on their first offensive drive, which and was aided by a Virginia Tech personal foul, to march 80 yards on 12 plays for its first touchdown, a 25-yard Bowden run.
Momentum quickly swung in favor of Virginia Tech with consecutive touchdown drives capped by touchdown passes from quarterback Haden Hooker. Kentucky’s defense had surrendered just seven passing touchdowns all season entering the game, fewest of any team in the country.
Kentucky would tie the game at 17-17 and 24-24 in the third quarter, but its usually stellar defense forced just one punt on Virginia Tech’s first eight drives.
A 40-yard Johnson field goal earned Virginia Tech a 27-24 lead with 3:13 left in the third quarter. On Kentucky’s next drive, running back A.J. Rose appeared to go down before losing the ball at his own 39-yard line, but the play was ruled a fumble on the field and no replay angle was conclusive enough to overturn that ruling.
Faced with a short field, UK’s defense stepped up, holding Virginia Tech to another field goal — a 27-yarder from Johnson — to keep the deficit within one possession at 30-24. It then forced a three-and-out after a Bowden interception to set up the final, 18-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock.
“Really in my mind I was thinking of an eight-minute drive,” Stoops said. “Sure, I would take a chunk play, but you know we’re not built that way. But we’re also built very difficult to stop in four downs when he’s creating like he is and when you have the quarterback in the run game.”
Bowden accounted for 53 yards on 12 carries on the final drive. He completed one other pass, a 9-yard conversion to Ali on a 4th-and-7 play from the Kentucky 43-yard line.
The three plays before the game-winning touchdown were all Bowden runs, capped by a 9-yard scramble out of bounds to stop the clock and set up the final play just as it appeared Kentucky might not have enough time to score the needed touchdown.
“Really, nothing he does surprises me,” Stoops said of Bowden. “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. If he would have played like that, if we would have started him at quarterback (all season), there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that he would be in New York at the Heisman (ceremony). You can’t take away from Joey (Burrow) and the people that were there — incredible players — but this guy right here is one of the best players in the country.”