Cats seeking back-to-back bowl victories

Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Kash Daniel (56) waves to the crowd during the senior day ceremony before the University of Kentucky vs. University of Louisville Governor’s Cup football game on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 45-13. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Mohammad Ahmad

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a culminating win in last season’s VRBO Citrus Bowl, the Kentucky football team looks to add another trophy to the shelf. 

The Cats (7-5) will look to cap off their season with eight wins as they’ll take on the Virginia Tech Hokies (8-4) in a Belk Bowl showdown on New Year’s Eve at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte at noon.

Tuesday’s Belk Bowl marks UK’s fourth straight bowl appearance. Back-to-back bowl wins will mark the first time UK has done so for the first since the Rich Brooks era back in over a decade. That would put head coach Mark Stoops’ Kentucky legacy in formidable company.

Here’s some of the most comprehensive storylines, stats and scouting reports you need to know to help prepare you for Tuesday’s big contest:

Lynn Bowden goes from WR1 to QB1

Kentucky finds itself in the bowl after bouncing back from a 2-3 start riddled with uncertainty that came following starting quarterback Terry Wilson’s season-ending injury and backup Sawyer Smith getting banged up. But wide receiver-turned quarterback Lynn Bowden took over the helms in week seven and helped lead his team to Charlotte with his entertaining legs.

Entertaining they were as Bowden ran for 1,235 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season, showed off the slightest bit of arm with 330 passing yards and two touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown, which led to him winning the Paul Hornung Award – the first-ever in Kentucky history. 

Aside from receiving Hornung Award honors, Bowden was also named a first-team All-SEC member and first-team All-American by the Associated Press. He currently leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally in all-purpose yardage, averaging 153.0 yards per game (excluding his quarterback yardage).

The Belk Bowl will be his last game as a Wildcats as he declared for the NFL Draft earlier this month.

Running through the records books

Bowden did so well this season that he personally broke several rushing records this season. Those records include:

  • Most rushing yards by an SEC player in a game (284)
  • Most 100-yard rushing games in school history (six)
  • Most rushing yards by a QB in a season in school history
  • Tied school records for most touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a game 
  • Second-most rushing yards in a game in school history (284)

As successful as Bowden was in the rushing game though, he got a lot of help from his three-headed trio of running backs by his side.

AJ Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and and Chris Rodriguez together with Bowden gave fans a historic rushing season to witness. UK rushed for more than 400 yards in the season’s last three games, including breaking the school record for most yards in a single game in back-to-back weeks (517 was the record set against Louisville).

UK’s rushers set new single-season records in rushing yards (3,293), rushing touchdowns (33) and yards per rushing attempt (6.4) this season. Rose led the corps as the junior ran for 794 yards and six touchdowns. Smoke ran for 622 yards and six touchdowns while Rodriguez ran for 520 yards and five touchdowns.

With all that said, that wouldn’t have been possible without the big bodies on the Cats’ veteran offensive line. Hometown tackle Landon Young, who came back after missing all of last year to injury, anchored an offensive line that helped his fellow backs breeze through defenders. Young also got some big, figuratively and literally, help from All-American senior guard Logan Stenberg. 

Expect offensive coordinator Eddie Gran to draw up creative schemes using his line to help the running backs and Bowden run over a stout Hokies rush defense, which we will get to later.

Secondary overcomes departures and injuries

One of the biggest question marks for the Cats entering the season was how they would respond to losing defensive backs Darius West, Mike Edwards and Lonnie Johnson to graduation. That question became an even harder pill to swallow for Stoops and defensive coordinator Brad White after Davonte Robinson had a season-ending injury in training camp.

Despite some noticeable growing pains in inconsistencies, the secondary has come to become its own.

Senior safety Jordan Griffin stepped up as the unquestioned leader in the secondary in place of Robinson. Griffin provided veteran leadership on and off the field, finishing the year with 25 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a sack. 

On the other end of the experience spectrum, sophomore safety Yusuf Corker had the second most tackles on the team (67) – just one shy of tying DeAndre Square for the top spot – and garnered four tackles-for-loss and a pick. Junior college transfer Brandin Echols also had some scrappy play at cornerback with 52 tackles.

No Josh Allen? No problem. 

Perhaps one of the greatest defensive players to ever step foot in Lexington, former defensive end Josh Allen’s departure left uncertainty for White and Stoops entering this season. The Bednarik Award winner and seventh overall pick in last spring’s NFL Draft left behind a major vacuum. 

Hence, that gave some hungry competitors a chance to go for the kill.  

Breakout rusher Jamar “Boogie” Watson replaced Allen at the jack and helped fill some left behind gaps. Watson had 9.5 tackles-for-loss this year, tied for most of the team with Josh Paschal, along with 6.5 sacks and 33 tackles. Paschal backed Watson with 33 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

But perhaps the unsung hero of that stout line is defensive tackle Calvin Taylor Jr. Taylor led the Cats in sacks this season (7.5) – tied for second-most in the SEC – to go with 33 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and an SEC-leading three forced fumbles. The 6-foot-9, 311-pound mammoth will be a force to be reckoned with Tuesday.

Scouting the Hokies

Tech head coach Justin Fuente presents a Hokies team that is in its 27th-straight bowl game. The Hokies had a 2-2 start that mirrored Kentucky’s and found a way to go 6-2 in their final eight games of the season.

One of the strong suits from Tech’s late season run was their scoring defense. Tech’s 23.7 points-per-game allowed is the fourth-lowest among all ACC teams. That goes with their 37 sacks this season – 13 of them coming in their last five games. Five-time ACC Linebacker of the Week Rayshard Ashby’s 106 tackles – 14.5 for loss – helped make that possible.

Part of what gives the Hokies a strong defense also comes from their backfield. Cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Jermaine Walker were named to PFF College’s All-ACC Defensive Team. Farley’s 16 passes defended are the most in the ACC this season and his four interceptions rank second. Walker had three picks and four passed defended.

The brains behind this challenging defense is defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who will actually be retiring after Tuesday’s contest. Foster, a Somerset, Kentucky native, started his career at Murray State in the mid-80s before spending the last 33 years with Virginia Tech. 

Quarterback Hendon Hooker went 6-1 as the Hokies starter this season. He completed 63% of his passes and threw for 1,126 yards and 10 touchdowns with no picks while rushing into the end zone four times. VT ranks sixth in the ACC in rushing offense with 172.5 yards-per-game thanks to a multitude of rushers including running backs Deshawn McClease and Keshawn King. 

Where and how to watch

TV: ESPN (PxP: Beth Mowins, Analyst: Anthony Becht, Sideline: Rocky Bolman)

Radio: UK Sports Network affiliates, 98.1 FM and 630 AM in Lexington (PxP: Tom Leach, Analyst: Jeff Piecoro, Sideline: Dick Gabriel)

ESPN Radio, 1300 AM and 92.5 FM in Lexington (PxP: Chris Cotter, Analyst: Mark Herzlich, Sideline: Kelsey Riggs)