Northwestern’s run defense has been one of the best in the country all season long. It’s the main reason the Wildcats finished the year on a seven-game winning streak, ranked No. 21 in the College Football Playoff poll and sit just one victory away from a 10-win season.

It’s appropriate then that Northwestern’s forte will be tested one more time in the Music City Bowl. In order to hit that elusive 10-win mark for the second time in three seasons, Pat Fitzgerald’s defense will be forced to shut down Benny Snell Jr., one of the top running backs — if not the best — out of the SEC.

Kentucky’s offense was putrid for most of the season and Snell was forced to due to the heavy lifting. Things worked out pretty well for the sophomore ball-carrier, who racked up 1,318 yards (2nd in the SEC) and 18 touchdowns (1st in the SEC) while averaging nearly 5.2 yards per carry.

Playing on a 7-5 team that was blown out on a few occasions, Snell didn’t get the recognition he deserved for an unprecedented sophomore season in Lexington — something to which Northwestern running back Justin Jackson can certainly relate.

Whether it’s an undervalued talent or a Heisman-caliber player, Northwestern’s defense is accustomed to squaring off against some quality ball-carriers. In the B1G, the Wildcats were essentially tasked with stopping a high-production back on a weekly basis. They lived up to the task nearly every time.

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Northwestern held Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the B1G’s leading rusher, to 80 yards on 19 carries. A week later, then-Heisman front-runner Saquon Barkley was held to negative yardage in the first half before ending the afternoon with 75 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Iowa’s Akrum Wadley and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith were also held under 100 yards and kept out of the end zone.

Linebackers Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher were solid run-stoppers, backing up a defensive front that was pretty stout on the ground, too. Tyler Lancaster, Sam Miller and Joe Gaziano were excellent in the trenches.

At the end of the year, the Wildcats allowed just 111.3 yards per game on the ground, ranking fourth in the B1G and 10th nationally.

So why should Northwestern, and one of the top run defenses in the country, be worried about Snell? Because he’s played some of his best football in the second half of the season.

Snell eclipsed the 100-yard mark in five of Kentucky’s final seven games. He had a particularly strong stretch at the end of October through early November, going for 180, 176 and 116 yards against Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, respectively. He also scored three touchdowns in each — yes, each — of those contests. He followed that up with 94 yards and a touchdown against a Georgia defense that ranked second against the run.

In the final week of the season, Snell toted the rock for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 29 carries against Louisville.

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Unlike the other opponents Northwestern has faced this season, Kentucky really doesn’t have a lot of offensive weapons outside of its primary running back. Quarterback Stephen Johnson has been effective in his role throughout the year, throwing for over 2,000 yards and completing 60 percent of his passes, but he doesn’t really possess the ability to completely take over a game.

There’s a reason Snell ranks in the top 10 nationally in carries per contest.

Essentially, Northwestern should expect to see a heavy dose of Snell in Nashville. Kentucky isn’t going to try anything cute in its pursuit for an eighth win. Mark Stoops will force-feed his monster in the backfield and put the game on the shoulders of the guy responsible for UK’s postseason appearance.

Fitzgerald’s defense has been up to the challenge throughout the course of the year. The ability to eliminate the run and shut down some of the top running backs in the B1G is the primary reason why Northwestern finished the year at 9-3.

Snell may not be a household name, but he should have the full attention of that Northwestern defense. Though he’s undervalued, Snell is one of the most prolific backs the Wildcats have seen all year.

If Northwestern wants to hit that 10-win mark again, the defense is going to have to earn it.