CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A day that started with Lynn Bowden throwing a pre-game punch ended with him throwing one of the biggest touchdown passes in UK football history – the game winner in the 2019 Belk Bowl.
Tension had been boiling among Bowden and his teammates since earlier in the week, when some Virginia Tech players had allegedly hurled invectives toward the Kentucky team at a dual-squad function in downtown Charlotte.
Then there was the internet meme posted from the Va Tech side, questioning the Wildcats’ collective manhood.
So it seemed predictable that when players from the two teams first drifted out of the locker rooms and onto the playing field at Bank of America Stadium, things might get a little testy. And they did.
First it was insults. Then it was punches traded by both sides, Bowden included, before coaches, administrators and even uniformed police officers separated the two sides.
Fortunately, it was prior to the one-hour pre-game window when officials are required to be on the field. Otherwise, Bowden and some others might never have even been allowed to play.
“I could have hurt my team,” Bowden said after the game. “ I apologized to the program and my teammates before the game. We respect Virginia Tech. If I could go back I wouldn’t do it.”
One would have to think his teammates have long since forgiven him.
It was Bowden who took the snap with only 15 seconds left to play, his team trailing Tech, 30-24. He had already run for more yards than any quarterback in the history of bowl games.
He had rushed for 233 yards against a defense coordinated by a coach, Bud Foster, generally considered one of the best ever to pull on a headset. Foster and his Hokies, like the rest of the teams that had lined up across from Bowden, knew that more often than not, he was going to run the football. And like the others, they seemed powerless to stop him.
Thirty-four times, Bowden tucked the ball and ran, either on designed plays, option reads or passing plays that broke down and called for some big-time scrambling. Only this passing play resulted in him actually dropping back, settling into the pocket and throwing the football.
And he had to convince Stoops to give him the chance.
Bowden pleaded his case during a UK timeout. “Throw the jump ball to Ahmad,” was the suggestion he made in the sideline huddle. “At least just take a shot. I was begging ‘em.”
And so? “They put it in my hands. Glory to God, my O-line held up. Over the top it goes.”
Target number one was the big guy – Ahmad Wagner, the basketball player-turned wide receiver. Wagner last year was best known for drawing pass interference penalties. He had picked up this season where he left off and then actually made some nifty catches, including an acrobatic TD grab against Florida. But Tech wasn’t having it.
The defender assigned to Wagner had decided to play off him, meaning the fade pattern likely wouldn’t work.
“Every time I look at him,” Bowden said, “they go 15 yards off of him. They don’t want to get dunked on.”
As they lined up, Bowden took note and made a decision. He would look elsewhere.
There was Josh Ali. At 6-foot, not nearly the towering target as the 6-foot-5 Wagner, but generally considered the best route-runner on the team – even better than Bowden, back when he played wide receiver.
Now the QB, Bowden noticed Ali’s defender had lined up on the receiver’s outside shoulder, meaning the inside move to the post would be available. He signaled as much to Ali and then called for the football.
On this day already he had returned a kick, fielded a punt and run for a pair of touchdowns. Now, he could add a touchdown pass to his resume’. Ali caught the perfect lob in stride at the back of the end zone and became a part of Wildcat football history, although it would be understandable if it took fans an extra beat to recall who was on the receiving end of Bowden’s heroic pass.
“He plays in the SEC every week against best corners in America,” Bowden said of Ali. “I saw him break in. I threw the ball. That’s my guy. He made a play for me.”
Only fitting, because Bowden had been making plays for his teammates all day.
“That,” said Stoops, “was one of the most impressive displays I’ve seen in a long time, the way he puts his team on his back and plays for them.”
The victory was Kentucky’s sixth in the last eight games of a season that saw a backup quarterback go down in pre-season, followed by the first two QBs on the depth chart. That gave rise to a converted wideout who simply re-wrote the record books with his feet – and then capped off a last-second bowl victory with his arm.
“We just wanted to finish this season right,” Stoops said. “It was kind of poetic that it happened that way.”
Someone, some day, just might bang out a poem about this season. Quick – what rhymes with “Bowden?”