5 things to know about Penn State's Citrus Bowl opponent: Kentucky
After a 9-3 regular season devoid of signature victories, Penn State fell off the New Year’s 6 bowl bubble but still landed in a New Year’s Day game for its shot at a third straight 10-win season and possibly a third consecutive top 10 finish. The Nittany Lions will face Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Penn State leads the all-time series 3-2, including a 26-14 victory in the most recent meeting, the 1999 Outback Bowl. The Lions opened as a 7-point favorite.
Here are five things to know about Kentucky, which finished second in the SEC East with a 5-3 mark and had a 9-3 record overall.
RB Benny Snell is the Wildcats’ workhorse
The 5-11, 223-pound junior needs 107 rushing yards to become the Wildcats’ career leader, a number he’s topped five times in each of his three 1,000-yard seasons.
This season, he is averaging roughly 22 carries for 109 yards per game, and Snell works for every inch. He’s a grinder. In the past eight games, his longest carry covered 24 yards, and he had only one other run over 20 yards in that stretch of 176 carries. Nonetheless, he has averaged 5-plus yards per carry every season.
Snell professes to be undecided on declaring early for the NFL Draft, but plans to play in the bowl game regardless and admits to having an eye on the UK record book. If the Penn State defense needs something for the bulletin board, this is it: Snell < 107 yards.
Stud linebacker leads solid defense
Kentucky ranks eighth in scoring defense (16.3 ppg) and 23rd among the 130 FBS teams in total defense (332.2 yards). In perhaps its best effort of the season, UK held Joe Moorhead’s Mississippi State squad to 201 yards and 11 first downs in a 28-7 Week 4 victory.
LB Josh Allen leads the charge. The 6-5, 260-pound senior has racked up a team-high 84 tackles and 14 sacks this season, not to mention 4 pass break-ups, 6 QB hurries and 5 forced fumbles. His sacks are all of the solo variety, and he ranks 1 sack off the national lead in both total sacks and solo sacks. He’ll be all over the field.
The Wildcats play basic, boring football
For Penn State fans old enough to remember, think game-managing QB John Shaffer from the Lions’ 1986 national championship team.
The Wildcats don’t ask sophomore QB Terry Wilson (147.3 ypg passing) to win games with his arm, and they’ll be perfectly happy to stymie and frustrate Penn State in a 14-10 type of game.
Kentucky runs on 64 percent of its plays. Wilson throws just 21 times per game and — judging from his 67.6 percent completion rate and modest yardage total — looks for safe throws rather than home run plays. With 518 rushing yards, he’s just as likely to help the cause with his legs as his arm.
The Wildcats are tied for 84th in scoring offense (26.6 ppg) and 101st in total offense (366.2 ypg). Those rankings would be even worse if not for some early-season and late-season cupcakes. Their key SEC wins include 14-7 over Vanderbilt and 15-14 over Missouri.
Kentucky won’t open up its offense or take risks unless and until Penn State takes a multi-score lead.
Coach Mark Stoops is making progress
In his sixth season at the helm, the youngest of the three coaching Stoops brothers has the ’Cats in a third straight bowl, is guaranteed a third straight winning season, and enters a 10th consecutive game with a ranked team. That’s not bad at the program that hadn’t been ranked at all since 2007.
Kentucky hasn’t hit 9 wins since 1984 and hasn’t seen double-digit victories since the probation-marred 1977 squad went 10-1 but was excluded from bowl play. With an upset of Penn State, this UK squad would probably be considered the best in program history since Bear Bryant’s 1950 team went 11-1 and won a retroactive, self-proclaimed national championship.
A long, mostly dubious history
Kentucky hasn’t regularly produced 9-win seasons since the turn of the century — and we’re not talking this century.
The famed basketball school has been playing football since the late 1800s. Its meager bragging right comes from the eight-year Bryant era (1946-53), which included eight winning seasons and an SEC title in the 1950 “national championship” season. Its only other SEC title came in 1976, a shared crown tainted by sanctions hitting the very next year.
The school was punished for football and basketball violations, with one impermissible benefit that probably hasn’t been conferred anywhere else ever.
From an archives New York Times story: “In a lengthy summary of the case, the NCAA said Kentucky representatives had offered high school prospects various gifts and inducements, including cash, clothing, free transportation, the use of automobiles, trips to Las Vegas, lodging, theater tickets, and, in one instance, a race horse.”