CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He used different methods each time, but Lynn Bowden delivered the same message over and over Tuesday.
The Kentucky star began, notably, by punching a Virginia Tech defender before the Belk Bowl started. He continued during the game by rushing 34 times for 233 yards, including a 61-yard score, and then delivering the knockout blow in the form of a 13-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining.
Finally, as he raised the MVP trophy postgame, he said it directly: "Stop disrespecting us."
The last play of Bowden's collegiate career wasn't supposed to be him throwing a touchdown, but a season-ending injury to quarterback Terry Wilson in Week 2 forced coach Mark Stoops to improvise. After struggling through a few games with a traditional offense, Stoops converted Bowden from a receiver to a do-everything hybrid who took snaps out of the backfield and led a run-heavy attack capable of the eight-minute, game-winning drive it produced against the Hokies.
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“The game is running through him. It’s running through him on every play,” Stoops said after the Wildcats' 37-30 victory at Bank of America Stadium. "That was one of the most impressive displays I've seen in a long time."
Stoops, Bowden and the rest of the Kentucky team largely downplayed the pregame fracas, chalking it up to the teams being in close quarters all week. Bowden did apologize after the game, saying he wouldn’t throw the punch if he could do it over.
"But it's in the past," Bowden added before waiting a beat, pointing to his commemorative Belk Bowl hat and saying, "Champion."
Kentucky and Virginia Tech got HEATED pregame pic.twitter.com/PregQKdHP1— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2019
Bowden will be viewed primarily as a wide receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft, and though he only ran a few routes against Virginia Tech, the 6-1, 199-pound junior still showed why he felt comfortable forgoing his senior season.
Hokies defenders struggled to bring him down all game, especially on the 61-yard touchdown scamper, which featured multiple cutbacks and slipped tackles.
"Lynn's just hard-nosed," WIldcats left guard Logan Stenberg said. "He's a skinny offensive lineman. He wants to go in there, he wants to put his face in it, he’s physical."
On his final snap, however, Bowden wanted to pass. Despite being 5 for 11 through the air for 60 yards and an interception to that point, the clock and field position dictated he throw. After audibling wide receiver Josh Ali's route to a post, Bowden lofted a pass into Ali's arms in the back of the end zone.
233 rushing yards ✅— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2019
Game-winning TD pass ✅
Lynn Bowden can do it all pic.twitter.com/LqY6cqM8vu
After the game, Bowden offered a quip out of the Lamar Jackson playbook.
"Y'all said I couldn’t throw," he said, "so over the top it go."
A pass clinched the game, but Bowden said the Wildcats didn't receive enough credit for having the fourth-ranked rushing attack in the nation (278.8 yards per game after Tuesday) during an 8-5 season in the SEC.
"I don’t see how my O-line didn’t win any awards," Bowden said. "I don’t get the logic. Is it because we're Kentucky? Is y'all gon' change that? That's just a question for the world. I want to know."
If Kentucky is to change its reputation, then it will require underclassmen stepping up in Bowden’s absence. Stoops said it would likely take multiple players to replace Bowden’s production, although presumably the offense will return to a more balanced approach once Wilson returns.
And even if Bowden's time on the field is over, the Wildcats said their future successes will be owed in large part to the player who took the reins and salvaged a season that seemed doomed.
"Here at UK," Stenberg said, "he's a legend forever."