In the aftermath of Kentucky’s frustrating 20-14 overtime loss at Texas A&M on Saturday night, Mark Stoops told Tom Leach on the UK coach’s postgame radio show that the Wildcats brain trust “briefly discussed” replacing quarterback Terry Wilson with backup Gunnar Hoak.
Underneath the Texas stars, Wilson endured a long, lonely night in College Station.
In spite of a UK game plan that seemed designed to emphasize passing, the junior-college transfer threw for only 108 yards — and half of that came on a flip pass that Lynn Bowden took in the backfield and converted into a 54-yard touchdown that was a de facto jet sweep.
Normally a dynamic runner in open-field situations, Wilson looked via the television to be a half-tick late all night in deciding to tuck the ball and go. As a result, he took six quarterback sacks and was credited with only 4 net rushing yards on 14 carries.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore’s struggles contributed greatly to Kentucky (5-1, 3-1 SEC) absorbing its first defeat of 2018.
Until Saturday night, Wilson had done all that could reasonably have been expected from a first-year starter, including playing a starring role in a road victory at Florida.
When you pull a starting quarterback that has been succeeding, there is always a chance that you undermine team cohesion and ding the QB’s faith in self.
However frustrating the Kentucky offensive showing was Saturday night, benching the quarterback in a game in which your team entered as unbeaten does not pass the risk/reward ratio.
(If your backup quarterback is Tua Tagovailoa, the risk/reward of pulling a struggling starting QB can look different. But most football coaches not named Nick Saban do not have a potential Heisman Trophy QB sitting on their bench).
Texas A&M entered the Kentucky game sixth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 85 yards a game. Even while losing, the Aggies held now-No. 4 Clemson to 115 yards rushing and No. 1 Alabama to 109.
UK appears to have looked at that video and decided its normal, run-centric offensive approach was not going to work against A&M.
Hindsight is eternally undefeated, but in retrospect it seems like it would have been better for Kentucky to force Texas A&M to prove it could stop what UK does best by giving Benny Snell 25-30 carries and pounding away at the Aggies.
Instead, the UK star running back toted the ball only 13 times for 60 yards. As a result, Kentucky looked out of synch offensively all night.
In the big picture, the good news for UK is that the Wildcats lost nothing at A&M other than five spots in the AP poll from 13th to 18th and their margin for error in the SEC East race.
Even if No. 2 Georgia comes to Lexington on Nov. 3 unbeaten — no certainty considering the Bulldogs’ next two games are at No. 13 LSU and vs. No. 14 Florida on a neutral field — the Wildcats still control their own destiny in the SEC East.
For UK to face Georgia with the division lead at stake, Kentucky must, after a well-timed open date this Saturday, beat Vanderbilt at Kroger Field on Oct. 20 and win at Missouri on Oct. 27.
To do that, UK obviously must get back its offensive mojo.
After playing the best all-around half of the Stoops era while scoring 24 points before halftime against South Carolina on Sept. 29, Kentucky has now gone six quarters with only one offensive touchdown.
As he’s shown at his best, Wilson’s dual-threat capabilities give the Kentucky offense a dimension it has not had before.
Yet for UK to close out what has started as a special season, it has to be able to throw the football down the field far better than it has done the past six quarters.
Wilson should be the starting QB against Vanderbilt.
However, if Kentucky’s downfield aerial attack continues to be grounded, the risk/reward ratio on giving the pocket-passing Hoak a shot could look different in the must-win games vs. Vandy and Mizzou than it did at A&M.
That’s why Terry Wilson is in such a pressure-packed spot in 2018. He is learning to play QB in the SEC in a season when an otherwise veteran-laden Kentucky team faces the urgency of needing to win big now.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky
When: Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network