Penn State outgained Kentucky by 113 yards, converted a better percentage of third downs and missed two very makeable field goals in its 27-24 Citrus Bowl loss on Tuesday afternoon.
So, yeah, one could argue that the Nittany Lions should have won.
One would be wrong, though.
I saw this one in person, sitting there wearing my white shirt amid a sea of blue-clad Wildcats fans. In an evenly split Camping World Stadium, I managed to pick the wrong side while shopping online for tickets.
I’m pretty sure I would have appreciated UK running back Benny Snell just as much without any Big Blue influence. I certainly can’t blame them for their passion. It’s comparable, I’m sure, to how Nittany Lions fans felt watching Trace McSorley play one final time.
Snell is the story of this game. He’s the story of Kentucky’s season, and of its three-year climb under Mark Stoops to its first 10-win season since 1977.
From the start, Snell brought toughness and passion. He kept Kentucky in character from opening kickoff to final whistle.
Having already declared for the NFL draft, Snell played for love of the game, his teammates and his school. At various times throughout the game, he exhorted the Kentucky side of the stadium to make noise. As I well know, they responded. These folks didn’t act like basketball fans taking a bowl trip on a lark. In this battle of 9-3 teams, it seems a 10th victory meant more to Kentucky and its faithful.
Snell certainly wanted it. That much was obvious on the Wildcats’ final drive, when Snell killed all but a couple ticks of the final 4:14 with eight straight runs.
Unlike Penn State, which tried a fake punt in its own territory on its opening drive, Kentucky didn’t try anything cute.
As advertised, the Wildcats relied heavily on Snell and played tough, basic football. They looked ready and inspired from the start. The Nittany Lions didn’t look that way until late in the third quarter, seemingly waking up only when the situation became desperate.
With McSorley and the offense finally finding some rhythm, Penn State almost pulled out a victory in a game it had no business winning.
But when the Lions had to settle for a field goal with 4:14 left to close to 27-24, the stage was set for Snell.
What Kentucky did should not have worked. Some day soon, let’s hope as soon as next year, no team — let alone Kentucky — should be able to telegraph basic running plays and still succeed against a defense that knows it must sell out to stop the run.
That’s what happened. Snell ran mostly straight ahead, to one side or the other of center, and pounded his way to two first downs. The first came after runs of 3, 4 and 4 yards.
After another 4 yard run, James Franklin called his first timeout of the half at the 2:00 mark. That basically put the Lions in a do-or-die situation on 2nd-and-6. They died on the next play. Snell battered ahead for 6 yards and a first down. Franklin called his final two timeouts after the next two plays. After Snell protected the ball on the final run of his college career, capping a turnover-free game for the Wildcats, Kentucky punted with 9 seconds left.
Penn State ran a final desperation play, attempting a hook-and-ladder that disconnected, and that was that.
Snell finished with 26 carries for 144 yards and 2 TDs — and as the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher. He produced three straight 1,000-yard seasons. He’s a grinder; long runs are rare for him. His game-best 32-yarder Tuesday was his longest romp in nine games — and only the third of 20-plus yards in that span.
He’s no Saquon Barkley. He doesn’t bring much of a “wow” factor. I don’t know how highly he’ll be drafted. But some NFL team will be very happy to have the former 3-star recruit.
I don’t know why Penn State couldn’t match Snell’s physical strength and toughness. The Lions field a young defense that did make strides as this season progressed. Maybe in another year, true freshman Micah Parsons and company will be up to the task. Maybe the Lions need to find a few more recruits with size and power to balance their recent trend toward speed and athleticism. Maybe such players are already on the roster and will emerge with time and experience.
One thing is certain to me after watching the Citrus Bowl unfold: Snell is ready for the NFL; no Lions underclassmen are.
The Lions could return their entire offensive line and top three running backs. With enough work, those guys could anchor a power running game. Then the more intricate parts of Penn State’s attack would be luxuries rather than necessities, and the Lions’ ceiling offensively would be way above a team like Kentucky that relies on grit alone.
But right now, Penn State’s toughest guy, McSorley, is done. Reports suggest he played the second half Tuesday in pain, possibly on a broken foot. A 3-star recruit like Snell, McSorley played with a chip on his shoulder for three years, never, ever quitting or backing down.
McSorley produced a school-record 31 victories, reviving a program jolted by sanctions and the loss of legendary coach Joe Paterno. If his passion and grit somehow pass down to the leaders of upcoming squads, that might prove even more valuable than what he did on the field.
And if an example from outside the program provides a fresh, worthwhile perspective, Franklin would do well to never let those Lions on the field at Camping World Stadium on New Year’s Day 2019 ever forget the name Benny Snell.