Citrus Bowl feels familiar…
There’s no way it can be familiar, right? Kentucky hasn’t been to a bowl game this highly regarded since at least January 1, 1999. Probably even longer. The Cats haven’t played Penn State since that Outback Bowl mentioned above which was Tim Couch’s final game. But as No. 14 UK prepares to pursue No. 12 Penn State for a potential 10th win, forgive me if I feel like I’ve been here before.
PSU is a big, physical, tough team. They’ve got an experienced QB who is a threat both with his arms and his legs. They’re good on the run, they’re pretty good on stopping the run. This game feels an awful lot like a game Kentucky played against the man who recruited for and designed this PSU attack—former Nittany Lion offensive coordinator and current Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead. Let me remind you that Kentucky was a solid underdog in that game… and won it by 21 points.
Meet Penn State
UK has played Penn State five times, the last coming in the Outback Bowl, which PSU won 26-14 after trailing UK at the half. Tim Couch passed for over 300 yards in his final game, but PSU’s defense bent but didn’t break in the second half.
Before that, the teams last met in 1977. You know, the last time UK ended the regular season ranked this high… or with this many victories. Kentucky went into Happy Valley and beat Joe Paterno and PSU that year, and actually also beat the Nittany Lions in Lexington in 1976.
This is now James Franklin’s squad, and his Nittany Lions have a one-two offensive punch to fear.
Senior QB Trace McSorley was regarded as a possible Heisman contender, and while his season has been disappointing, he does have some Nick Fitzgerald-like skills, although probably coupled with a more accurate passing arm.
RB Miles Sanders isn’t the flashiest guy in the world, but he runs well behind a big line, and helped PSU score almost 35 points per game in 2018.
Defensively, PSU doesn’t have a single Josh Allen-style standout. They do rush the QB well, led by Yetur Gross-Matos, who had eight sacks and an impressive 20 tackles for loss.
Here’s the surprise about the Nittany Lions. They didn’t beat anybody. Really. Look at the schedule. Biggest win? Iowa maybe, perhaps a mediocre Wisconsin team. Granted, two of PSU’s three losses were nail-biters to Ohio State and Michigan State. But PSU doesn’t own a single win over a team currently in the top 25.
Where UK Stands
This is the final game for an incredibly special group of Wildcats. Benny Snell, Bunchy Stallings, Darius West, Mike Edwards, Josh Allen, C.J. Conrad, Derrick Baity, and so many others will play their final snaps at UK. The hope is that Kentucky recovers some of the defensive mojo it lost in the last month of the regular season, although the loss of Jordan Jones in this game may not help.
Snell needs 107 rushing yards to set UK’s career record. It’ll be tough, but good luck denying old number 22 much of anything.
Yes, this feels a lot like the Mississippi State game. That one ended 28-7, but PSU is definitely a better team than State. Well, better than State was when UK waxed them. Give them a touchdown for that. And give them another touchdown because UK’s defense hasn’t had the swagger that it had in that game for a couple months.
That makes it 28-21 UK, which sounds about right. Happy New Year!
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written six books, with the seventh to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at email@example.com.