Penn State aims for a third consecutive 10-win and top 10 season with a victory in the Citrus Bowl in Trace McSorley’s final game as a Nittany Lion.
(#12)Penn State (9-3) vs. (#14)Kentucky (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m., Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
The Betting Line: Penn State -6.5
TV: ABC- Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst), Laura Rutledge (sideline)
Weather: A sunny day with highs in the upper-70s.
PENN STATE RECORD: 45-20, 5th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 69-35, 8th Year
VS. KENTUCKY: 3-0
KENTUCKY RECORD: 35-39, 6th Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting
NOW THE FUN PART....
KENTUCKY OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
If you followed Kentucky at all during their surprise 2018 season, you likely heard a thing or two about Benny Snell. The Heisman candidate is the focal point of the WIldcats offense, with an old-school approach of riding its workhorse back while keeping the opposing offense on the sideline.
Snell had at least 18 carries in 10 of 12 games this season, and didn’t show much signs of slowing down as he ended the season with consecutive 100-plus yard rushing efforts. He’s a load to tackle at 5-foot-11 and 223 lbs. While he’s capable of breaking a long run from time to time, most of his work comes between the tackles where he can continuously pick up chunk yardage to keep the chains moving. He has decent hands, but is mostly used as a safety valve and is not a prolific pass-catcher. On the season, he has 17 receptions for 105 yards with no touchdowns.
Lynne Bowden Jr. is by far the most frequent target in the passing game. While he’s dangerous, it also gives Penn State the opportunity to attempt to shut him down on obvious passing downs. Bowden has 62 receptions on the season, which is more than four times the amount of Kentucky’s second-leading wide receiver (senior David Bouvier, 15 catches). Bowden has a broad skill set, and is used similar to Allen Robinson during his time at Penn State- the plan is to get the ball in his hands whether it be on a screen or as a downfield threat, or anything in between.
Quarterback Terry Wilson is an accurate passer, but not one to carry the offense. If Penn State forces him to throw northward of 25 passes, they should be in good shape. In Kentucky’s three losses, he averaged nearly 28 attempts. In the nine victories, he averaged 18.8 while allowing Snell to carry the load.
Wilson is steady, completing 67.6 percent of passes on the season with only two games where his completing percentage dipped under 60. However, he has just 11 touchdowns on the season to eight interceptions. He had just two games with multiple touchdown passes, but is coming off his most productive game by tossing for 261 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season finale at Louisville.
Wilson also looks to tight end C.J. Conrad often, a large target who is good for 2-4 catches per game. He is quite athletic for his size, and can be used as a downfield target with the right match-up.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. KENTUCKY DEFENSE
Kentucky’s surprise season has been made possible by the play of the defense. The Wildcats pulled off early-season upsets against Florida, where they held them to 16, and Mississippi State, when they allowed just seven, to shoot up the rankings and have one of its best seasons in recent memory.
A main reason the defense performed at such a high level was the presence of outside linebacker Josh Allen, who was named the most outstanding defensive player in all of college football. New to his mantle are the Bednarik, Nagurski, Lott, and SEC Defensive Player of the Year awards, as well as being named a consensus first-team All-American.
Allen is used primarily as an edge rusher, where he is a difficult to handle thanks to his outstanding quickness combined with a 6-5, 260 lb. frame. He made life miserable for quarterbacks this year, accumulating 14 sacks, 18.5 TFLs and forcing five fumbles. The former two-star prospect is poised to be a high NFL draft pick in April but will still be playing on Tuesday. It will be paramount for Penn State to neutralize Johnson to avoid any disruptive plays that could swing the game in what could be a low-scoring affair.
The Wildcats will be without starting linebacker Jordan Jones, however, who has been ruled ineligible. Jones was fifth on the team in tackles and had 5.5 TFLs on the season.
Safety Mike Edwards is another disruptive force, who is reminiscent of former Penn Stater and current Steeler Marcus Allen. Edwards makes plays all over the field, and his ability to get to the ball makes the entire defense much better. He finished second on the team with 77 tackles that included nine TFLs, while also picking off two passes and forcing a fumble. The Wildcats have another playmaker at the other safety spot in Darius West, who had three interceptions and a forced fumble while finishing third on the team with 76 tackles.
Kentucky’s defense has been one of the nation’s stingiest units, allowing just 16.3 points per game. They also have one of the nation’s best passing defenses, yielding 181.3 yards per game through the air. The rushing defense is solid, but not as dominant as other areas. The Wildcats are allowing 150.8 yards per game on the ground, which comes in at 50th in the nation.
While Trace McSorley will be looking to go out with a big game, it could come down to Penn State’s ability to run at the heart of the Kentucky defense to keep the chains moving and put up points. In addition to Miles Sanders, keep an eye out for true freshman Ricky Slade as he prepares to take on a much larger role in 2019, and possibly inheriting the starting running back gig depending on Sanders decision on whether or not to return for his senior season.
The Wildcats lack a standout kicker, so gambling on fourth downs or punting with a short field are commonplace for this team. Miles Butler and Chance Poore shared duties, but neither could take control of the job with Butler connecting on five of nine with a long of 40 while Poore was two of four with a long from 34.
Kentucky does have an excellent putner in Max Duffy, an Australian-style kicker with a booming leg. Duffy is averaging 44.8 yards per punt as a sophomore, and flips with the field with 50-plus yard kicks on a regular basis.
Lynne Bowden Jr. is an explosive return man who can do some real damage if Penn State’s kick teams don’t stay in their lanes. Bowden is averaging just over 22 yards per kick return, and 26 on punt returns, that includes a 67-yard touchdown. However, receiver David Bouvier is the regular punt returner, and he is averaging 5.2 yards with a long of 21 yards on the season.
This will be the final game in a Penn State uniform for senior wide receiver and punt returner DeAndre Thompkins, who has been electric as a return man for the past two seasons. He’ll be looking to go out with one more big return. A return touchdown by Thompkins or kick returner KJ Hamler could be the difference in a match-up of two stingy defenses.
Penn State-27, Kentucky-17
Kentucky is an ideal match-up for Penn State. The two keys will be for the defense to stop (or at least limit) Benny Snell, and buy some time for McSorley and find ways to get the ball out of his hands quickly to beat the rush. The former should be a solid possibility with Penn State’s vastly improved defense, the latter, however, could go any direction.
Outside of that, there is one intangible that makes me believe the Nittany Lions will leave Orlando with a ‘W’- it’s Trace McSorley’s final game in a Penn State uniform, meaning he will do everything possible to go out with a victory.
McSorley does exactly what he does in moments like this, tossing for 280 yards and two scores and contributing another 80 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Pat Friermuth and KJ Hamler each get a touchdown reception in their first bowl game, with more to come.
On defense, Kevin Givens plays a major role in slowing down Snell with three TFLs, while Shareef Miller contributes 1.5 sacks for a big day overall for the defensive line. Micah Parsons leads the team with nine tackles and forces a fumble in a sign of things to come with regularity in 2019 and beyond.