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By LARRY VAUGHT
For Patrick Towles, his collegiate debut was “what he dreamed about growing up” as a kid in Fort Thomas.
He was Kentucky’s Mr. Football at Highlands last year and the marquee name in the University of Kentucky’s 2012 recruiting class. Yet he had been slated for a redshirt season until starting quarterback Maxwell Smith went down with a likely season-ending ankle injury and senior Morgan Newton was ineffective.
Towles finally got his chance to play here Saturday against Mississippi State and his first series was so impressive that former UK quarterbacks Tim Couch and Jared Lorenzen immediately went on Twitter to praise him. And they should have even though the Wildcats eventually lost 27-14.
Towles led a superb 80-yard scoring drive where he went 5-for-5 passing and hit LaRod King for a 32-yard scoring strike despite being pummelled just as he released the ball. That cut the deficit to 14-7 and filled Commonwealth Stadium with hope — but just for a few moments because two series later he was sacked, twisted his ankle and spent the second half on crutches watching freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow run the offense.
“I loved every bit of it,” said Towles, who threw only one pass (an incompletion) on his next two series after the scoring drive. “I tried to stay even keeled, but unfortunately it did not end up well. I hurt my ankle when I probably should have just gone down rather than fighting the tackle. But I hurt my left ankle in high school and don’t think this is too severe. I am going to do my best to get back out there as soon as I can. I don’t know if that will be next week, but I want it to be.”
Kentucky fans do, too. Many had been clamoring for Towles to play and he had been wanting to play even though he understood Smith’s experience and solid play early in the season made it easier for coach Joker Phillips to redshirt him. But the plan all along was that if he was needed, he would burn the redshirt season to help the team.
However, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders warned Towles, who had been running UK’s scout team, what could happen against State’s always physical defense. “I told him all week if he didn’t make quick decisions, get the ball out of (his) hand, he might get his leg broke,” Sanders said. “But sometimes ignorance is bliss. He had remarkable poise that first series. Sometimes not knowing makes it easier to play.”
Still, Sanders admitted Towles had him “scratching his head” over a few plays on UK’s scoring drive. “But it is unfortunate he got hurt. Football can be cruel and tough like it was for him today,” Sanders said.
It didn’t start that way. After Whitlow went three-and-out on two series to open the game, Towles got his chance with UK trailing 14-7. He gained two yards on a rollout on his first and on third-and-11, he threw a 14-yard first-down pass to King. Next came a 7-yard pass to Raymond Sanders. Two plays later it was a 9-yard throw to Demarco Robinson. On third-and-one at the State 44, Towles faked a handoff and hit tight end Ronnie Shields for a 9-yard gain.
Two plays later he showed why he could be special. King made a double move and that gave State, which had nine tackles for loss in the game, a chance to get to Towles. He never flinched with a rusher coming toward him and lofted a high pass toward the goal line for King, who was wide open. Towles took the hit, King caught the ball and went into the end zone to ignite the UK fans who did come to the game.
“We expect him to go in there and to play well and he did,” Phillips said.
Phillips said Towles went to “the right guy” on the first completion to King and then “stood in there” on the touchdown play.
“Towles can make plays like that,” freshman cornerback Daron Blaylock said. “We see that in practice. It was no surprise.”
Towles said not to forget who helped him look so good that drive.
“I had a lot of help out there,” the freshman quarterback said. “The offensive line guys were great and made my life easier. Give them credit, too.”
Kentucky got the ball back at the 14, but for some reason Sanders did not let Towles throw the ball. Three runs netted five yards and a punt. After State got a field goal to make it 17-14, UK got the ball back at the 20 with 1:51 left. However, not only were there no heroics, Towles got hurt on the first play when he was sacked for a 12-yard loss. He overthrew Demarco Robinson on his next play and then handed off on what could be his last play of the season.
If he’s hurt and cannot play again, he can apply for a medical redshirt season. If he’s out two to three weeks or more — Sanders said it didn’t sound positive about Towles playing next week — and then plays in another game or two, he will use a year of eligibility.
“We will see how it goes,” Phillips said.
However, Phillips sure liked what he did see.
“He stood in on that touchdown pass and took one in the lips which is what big-time quarterback should do,” the UK coach said. “You’re not going to break tackles (on the sack) when the guy has both arms wrapped around you. Just go down. That’s how competitive he is. That wasn’t my advice to him. This year he’s not going to break a tackle, go down and live to compete another play.”
But he didn’t and UK went back to Whitlow, who had played well at Florida. He was only 10-for-21 passing for 73 yards and ran eight times for 26 yards, including a 14-yard scoring run that cut the lead to 27-14 midway of the third quarter and briefly gave UK hopes for coming back that were quickly ended by the lack of offense.
“Jalen is running too much and too quick. Sometimes he is trying to make plays when he shouldn’t,” Sanders said.
“I left a lot of plays on the field today,” he said. “I’m pretty frustrated, but we can’t hang our heads. I also took some sacks that I shouldn’t have taken. I couldn’t really throw the ball in the ocean today, so that’s not good.”
No, but don’t give up on Whitlow. Like Towles, he’s talented. Just in somewhat different ways, but don’t doubt that he is a SEC playmakers.
For once, Phillips even admitted he wished after the game he could have been second guessed for how he decided to rotate the two quarterbacks in the second half.
“You could be criticizing me for the rotation and that means both of them were healthy, meaning that one more didn’t get (hurt) … I wished that was the question today everybody was asking because I would have both of them healthy. But we didn’t so we’ll never know.”
Towles hopes Phillips has that dilemma soon.
“I want to play. If that wasn’t apparent when I came out here and burned my redshirt now, I want to play,” Towles said. “This medical redshirt stuff is great if I can’t get back on the field, but I want to get back on the field.”
And Kentucky needs him back on the field based on what he showed on that first memorable series.