This story has been written so many times before. The ending is the same; only the wrinkles are different.
Here’s Kentucky; arguably the better team with a chance to run the table to an 8-4 record.
Here’s Tennessee; after a coaching change and resulting exodus of a number of players, down to around 70 scholarship athletes – essentially, an FCS team (the old 1-AA status).
And yet, it’s the Volunteers celebrating once again, this time after a 17-13 heartbreaker that ended less than two yards from joy for the Wildcats.
A Vol turnover near midfield in the closing minutes gave the Cats exactly what they needed – one more shot at the end zone, which they hadn’t visited since early in the game.
Kentucky had marched to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. It was only 13 because after the second touchdown (a nifty 22-yard run by Kavosiey Smoke), Chance Poore’s try for the extra point was blocked.
As they often do in a game such as this, that miss loomed large in the closing seconds. Down four, Kentucky needed to punch it in for a TD. Had it been 17-14, the Wildcats at least could have entertained the notion of kicking a game-tying field goal and trying to win in overtime.
In fact, UK made five different trips to the Tennessee side of midfield and came away scoreless. Five. Trips. Given the swirling wind and the checkered record of both Wildcat kickers this season, a field goal try from distance apparently was out of the question.
So here’s Lynn Bowden, ready to take the snap on fourth and posterity from the Tennessee two-yard line. The Vols had just stymied powerful Christopher Rodriguez on the play before, in fact knocking him back a yard.
On the sideline, Mark Stoops was thinking about a timeout, but when the voices in his headset told him they liked the defensive look Tennessee was presenting, the UK coach rode with the QB who had marched the team achingly close the goal line.
“I’ll never argue with Lynn taking it right there and he stretched it to the perimeter.,” he said. “We’ll probably look at it and feel like if he would have pitched it would have been a foot race to the pylon and probably had a chance. But I’m not going to argue with that kid and the way he has a chance to pull the ball down and try to drive it in there and get the one yard. Credit them for a nice stop.”
The Orange defense did, indeed, come up biggest when it had to. But a peek at the numbers, minus the score, would lead one to believe the Wildcats had dominated: 302 rushing yards; 71 plays; time of possession 41:37. And for the fourth straight game, the UK defense held its opponent to less than 305 total yards of offense. And yet…
“When you get one dimensional it gets hard,” said Stoops, who admitted he considered inserting backup QB Sawyer Smith on a couple of occasions. But instead, he rode with the dynamic Bowden.
“I had the option to pitch it,” Bowden told reporters. “They took my pitch key away. The big guys got their hands on me before I could do anything. Maybe if I take one less step and hit it, I probably get in.”
So now, Bowden takes his place in a growing list of UK quarterbacks who had their shot at Tennessee:
Glenn Fohr, who in 1987 handed off to Mark Higgs four straight times inside the five-yard line, only to see the Wildcat tailback turned away at the goal line on fourth down…
Tim Couch, good for 476 passing yards against the Vols in 1997. Trouble was, UT had a QB named Payton Manning, who threw for 523 in a 59-31 Tennessee win…
Andre Woodson; in 2007 he missed a wide-open Keenan Burton in the end zone for the game-winning TD pass, in what turned out to be a 52-50, four-overtime loss…
Morgan Newton, who like Bowden, tried to stuff it into the end zone on a keeper in the final seconds, only to be stuffed himself by the Vols. UK had to settle for a field goal and then lost it in overtime…
Terry Wilson, who rolled into Knoxville with teammates Benny Snell, Josh Allen and dozens of other Wildcats who eventually would win the Citrus Bowl. Only they stunk it up that day in Neyland Stadium.
Now Bowden has his set of orange-tinged regrets as well. “There was a lot going on at the end,” he said. “You can put that on me – nobody else.”
Kentucky fans will play the Blame Game on this one for as long as they pump up footballs. The Wildcats have no such luxury. They have a game of their own to play this Saturday, with a bowl game still out there – if they can find their way to the end zone when they need it the most.