The Kentucky Wildcats are entering the new decade as winners after topping the Virginia Tech Hokies 37-30 in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on New Year's Eve.
Tensions ran high as Wildcats quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. threw a punch amid a pregame altercation between the teams:
The bad blood seeped into the game too. Both squads were chippy throughout as Bowden took hard shots and referees assessed penalties for "abusive language" and "taunting" followed by two targeting calls that were not confirmed.
Ultimately, Bowden got the last laugh. The junior playmaker led the Wildcats on an 18-play, 85-yard drive that lasted over eight minutes in the fourth quarter and culminated in a 13-yard game-winning touchdown pass.
Kentucky rubbed it in by forcing a fumble and returning it for six on Virginia Tech's last-ditch effort as time expired.
It was a sour send-off into retirement for Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster after 33 seasons at Virginia Tech, 25 of those leading the Lunch Pail Defense.
Having beaten Penn State in last year's Citrus Bowl, this marks the first time 8-5 Kentucky has won a bowl game in back-to-back seasons since 2007-08. The Wildcats ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak.
The 8-5 Hokies, meanwhile, have made it to 27 straight bowl games, the longest active streak in the nation, but have dropped their last three trips. This result is a disappointing way to end the year after they lost to No. 24 Virginia for the first time in 16 tries in the regular-season finale.
UK QB Lynn Bowden Jr.: 73 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 34 carries, 233 yards, 2 TD
UK RB Asim Rose: 10 carries, 69 yards
UK WR Josh Ali: 4 catches, 52 yards, 1 TD
VT QB Hendon Hooker: 110 yards, 2 TD
VT RB Deshawn McClease: 11 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD
VT WR Damon Hazelton: 1 catch, 18 yards, 1 TD
Lynn Bowden Jr. Runs All Over Hokies
The Wildcats' passing game struggled for most of the game against Foster's defense and threw the ball just 13 times.
Perhaps that's because last season's leading receiver is now lining up under center.
But it was Bowden's arm that won Kentucky the game.
A two-play sequence early in the third quarter summed up Kentucky's offensive outing. Bowden lobbed a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage that fell incomplete, but he ripped off a 61-yard touchdown run on the ensuing play to tie the contest at 24.
It was Bowden's second rushing touchdown, and the first one featured much more attitude:
However, Bowden's limitations at quarterback came to the forefront in the fourth quarter when he launched the ball downfield on 3rd-and-6 and was picked off by Brion Murray. The Hokies led 30-24 with just under 10 minutes left at the time. Luckily for UK, the defense forced a three-and-out.
On the next drive, Bowden converted on 4th-and-7 with under four minutes left on a nine-yard pass to Josh Ali—his first completion of the second half. He converted a fourth-down situation again later in the drive with a two-yard run. His second completion of the second half came with 19 seconds left: a game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Ali.
Bowden has compensated for his shortcomings at quarterback—the position he played in high school before playing wide receiver at Kentucky—as a runner:
After starting quarterback Terry Wilson suffered a season-ending knee injury Sept. 7, junior Sawyer Smith replaced him for three weeks before suffering wrist and shoulder injuries. Bowden then took over behind center.
He has recorded seven games with at least 100 yards rushing, including three 200-yard rushing performances, bookended by 196 yards in his starting debut and 233 against Virginia Tech:
Kyle Tucker @KyleTucker_ATH
Since a few of you asked me to do this by yards per carry ... 1. Lynn Bowden 7.9 2. Nick Fitzgerald 7.1 3. Johnny Manziel 7.0 4. Cam Newton 5.6 (This is not an overall ranking of all SEC QBs, just resorting the top four in total single-season rushing yards by ypc.) https://t.co/0DElCvDAyc
UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow told Jon Hale of the Courier Journal:
"What I saw him out there doing (this season) is what I saw him doing for three years in high school. I've been around a lot of players. He's one of those guys — Benny (Snell) was one of those guys — where they just want the ball in a crucial time. Lynn wants it in a crucial time, and he can do extra stuff, more than what Benny can do. He's just a ball player."
Bowden's future on Sundays will likely be at wide receiver, but his legend at Kentucky will be as a run-first quarterback.
Deshawn McClease Notches Third Straight 100-Yard Bowl Game
McClease previously ran for 102 yards in last year's Military Bowl and 124 yards in 2017's Camping World Bowl.
Hooker played well enough in his eighth start since taking over for fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Willis, but the offense was most effective when going through McClease.
The redshirt junior had a career-best performance as the Hokies fell short:
McClease's best run of the day was a 43-yard score early in the third quarter. It went far in notching his first 100-yard game since Oct. 12 and third this season.