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53 Random Thoughts on Kentucky

Random musings on the Citrus Bowl against the Wildcats

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Kentucky vs Penn State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On January 1, 2019, this version of the Penn State Nittany Lions took the field one final time to engage in a contest of American football with the Kentucky Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. After mounting a furious comeback in the game’s last 16-plus minutes, the Lions came up just a hair short, falling 27-24. I was there live and have several thoughts, which are randomly set forth below:

  1. Repeat after me: this is a 9-win team.
  2. This was a heck of a day for my family, as we left vacation in South Carolina at 6:00 a.m. to drive to Orlando for the game, then turned around and headed back. Over 16 hours, much of which was spent in the car, just to see Trace McSorley’s final game in blue and white.
  3. Luckily for us, I-95 was empty and the sky was clear. Made for a nice ride down.
  4. I only wish the mood on the ride back was as pleasant. But so it goes.
  5. Nine years ago, I went to the Citrus Capital One Bowl when Penn State squared off against LSU. Nice vacation, but boy was that game a mess. Torrential downpours made getting out of the car and walking to the stadium difficult and tore up the field considerably. Not to mention the stadium itself is in rough and tumble neighborhood and was in desperate need of an upgrade.
  6. You can imagine how thrilled I was to hear that Camping World Stadium underwent a $200 million renovation in 2014. I expected a vastly different stadium experience when we approached in 2019 than in 2010.
  7. I was wrong.
  8. The Citrus Bowl game itself is historic and has traditionally been considered the top of the tier below the New Year’s Six. Even so, I was underwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting the pageantry of the Rose Bowl or the import of the Big Ten Championship Game, but I was surprised at the lack of “special” that existed there. In some ways, the Pinstripe Bowl felt like a more unique and interesting post-season experience than leading the afternoon lineup on New Year’s Day.
  9. That’s not to say we had a bad time - we didn’t. The weather was perfect, our seats were terrific, and the crowd was lively.
  10. All credit to Kentucky for bringing it at this game. This is a crew that really cared. Their fans traveled well and certainly filled their allotment for a team that hasn’t been this good in over 40 years.
  11. For a basketball power with virtually no history on the gridiron, filling the Citrus Bowl is basically the equivalent of a football power bringing 10 buses of students to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four. Each instance showed that the support was there and ready to be collected if the school was willing to invest.
  12. We can see how that’s worked out for Penn State basketball. We’ll see whether Kentucky football gets a significant investment.
  13. We accidentally walked in through the Kentucky gate, which we quickly figured out when we were surrounded by a lighter shade of blue. A young woman inside was handing out “Go Big Blue” towels, and she smiled and handed one to me anyway if I promised to cheer for the Wildcats. I told her I appreciated the offer and that I’d cheer for the hoops squad instead.
  14. I might’ve also promised her my first born in exchange for a Penn State win, but that’s unconfirmed...
  15. After a year that could sometimes be frustrating, we Penn Staters managed to talk ourselves into the idea that a month off would allow us to put it all back together, storm the Wildcats, and take that 10th win directly into the final AP Top 10 for the third consecutive year.
  16. This bowl preparation theory is, I think, a not-so-distant cousin of the preseason “15-0 or GTFO” disease.
  17. Unfortunately, it took less than 45 seconds of game time to realize that this Penn State team was the same Penn State team that took the field from September through November, warts and all.
  18. Hell, the first drive featured a dropped pass and a special teams disaster.
  19. I’m not going to recount this game in drive-by-drive detail, mostly because I’m simply refusing to watch this game again. But suffice to say Penn State started off on the wrong foot.
  20. I just can’t get over how catastrophic special teams was all year, including a headline performance on New Year’s Day. For the record, I loved the fake punt call on the opening drive. Bowl games are supposed to be fun, so let’s act like it and take a few chances. This was a good one.
  21. Unfortunately, this team just doesn’t execute. I thought the formation and setup might have been a tell, but the truth is that the bad snap/exchange really did that play in.
  22. The first offensive play by Kentucky seemed to portend a long day for the defense, when Benny Snell broke through for 16 quick yards. But outside of that run, Kentucky’s offense was basically shut down for the rest of the half.
  23. Special teams, though. Oh good Lord the special teams. Swung the game 16 points. SIXTEEN.
  24. A field goal after the failed punt, a punt return touchdown, and two missed field goals.
  25. SIXTEEN.
  26. This is the kind of thing that makes you crazy. Especially when you lose a game by 3.
  27. Also of note, I was really glad to not be inside the game thread. Our staff Slack channel was tough enough.
  28. I don’t understand what we were doing on offense in the first half, and I’m not sure the team did either. Miles Sanders was relatively ineffective, Trace McSorley missed some open receivers, and the receivers dropped multiple passes.
  29. Kentucky’s defense is legit, though. They’re fast and play hard. And Josh Allen deserves every dollar some NFL team is going to throw at him this year.
  30. Honestly, the fact that a linebacker from New Jersey was the national defensive player of the year for Kentucky should make all of us a little nauseous, especially after the lack of depth we suffered through this year.
  31. You have to get the ball in the hands of your play makers. KJ Hamler is faster than anyone on the field. How is it possible that he only caught one pass in the first half? Especially when that pass went for 41 yards just because he outran everyone.
  32. That Sean Clifford long ball down the sideline to DeAndre Thompkins that was...say it with me...dropped was just brutal.
  33. Hard to argue about where Penn State stood at the half. The Nittany Lions had shot themselves in the foot on multiple occasions and were still just down 3. A very winnable game if they came out of the locker room with a plan.
  34. Yeah, about that...
  35. The third quarter collapse shows how easy it can be to let a game slip completely out of your grasp. Kentucky’s opening drive of the second half was exactly the kind of drive they wanted all day - Benny Snell gashing the previously sturdy Penn State defense, combined with a quarterback who did the bare minimum to keep that defense honest. Of course, the Cam Brown targeting call was egregious and infuriating.
  36. You have to expect Kentucky to have one or two drives like that per game. They aren’t incompetent, they’re a top 15 team.
  37. But that drive combined with Sean Clifford coming out for Penn State’s first drive of the second half made everyone shift uncomfortably in their seats.
  38. Clifford has been good in reserve this year and has done some impressive things, but here’s where missing Tommy Stevens really hurt. Stevens is more mature and has been in this situation before. With McSorley hurt, we basically handed the car keys to a redshirt freshman and asked him to drive against one of the best defenses in the country. It’s no surprise he ended up swarmed.
  39. Without Trace as a steadying influence, this team totally lost its composure. The next Kentucky drive was more or less the same as the last, except it ended with a Micah Parsons personal foul and a field goal instead of a touchdown. Down 20-7 and feeling as though the season was slipping away, Trace, broken foot and all, came back in and proceeded to heave an ugly pick.
  40. I don’t know how it looked on TV, but the Kentucky side of the stadium basically exploded on that interception. The excitement had been building through the first few drives of the half and one big play lit the fuse. It’s no surprise that they scored in two plays to take a commanding 27-7 lead.
  41. Micah played well, but in the third quarter he made two plays that turned this game on its head, and not in a good way. The aforementioned personal foul and the over-pursuit on the first play after the interception put Penn State well behind the eight ball.
  42. God, who doesn’t love Trace McSorley? I should’ve known that kid wouldn’t get blown out in his final college appearance.
  43. I didn’t love the time management at the end of the third quarter. We could have run another play there, and time was of the essence. We were down 20 points and had scored once all day. This team needed every minute they could get in order to maximize the number of available possessions, and instead it felt like we lacked urgency.
  44. Still, Penn State basically did everything it needed to do and the chips fell exactly right for most of the 4th quarter. Essentially, it needed to score on every drive and hold Kentucky not just in points, but yards and time of possession. It did that. Prior to the last Kentucky possession, Penn State’s defense forced 2 3-and-outs and gave up just 11 yards.
  45. Lots of ink spilled on the decision to kick on 4th and 7 with 4 minutes left. I’d like to think I would’ve gone for it, but reasonable minds can differ. Except for the third quarter fiasco, the defense had been incredible. The previous two drives were unqualified successes, and now we knew that Kentucky was likely to only run the ball and drain clock.
  46. It wasn’t an obvious bad call. It just didn’t work.
  47. Anyone else think there was open space for a miracle on the game’s last play?
  48. I’m sad to see Trace’s career end like this, but this transitional year will never be what we remember about him. Trace’s legend is inexorably linked to the guys who left last year - Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton tops among them. Trace McSorley walking off the field in Orlando doesn’t define him. Trace McSorley raising the Big Ten Championship Trophy, beating Ohio State at home, and slinging touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl is how he’ll be remembered.
  49. Congratulations to all of the seniors on this squad for a 5 year run. And good luck to MIles Sanders, Shareef Miller, Kevin Givens, Ryan Bates, and Connor McGovern as they forgo their last year of eligibility. You’ll all be missed.
  50. Oddly enough, I’m ready to move on. After three years of Trace McSorley, I’m ready to see someone else take the reins. It’s not because Trace wasn’t special; he is.
  51. The last vestiges of the 2016-2017 championship teams are gone and a new squad with new leaders now gets a chance to put years on the side of Beaver Stadium and hoist trophies that they’ll have earned.
  52. See you in 235 days, Penn State football.
  53. We are...