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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Kentucky Wildcats Edition

The upstart Cats are looking for one more upset in what has been a surprising campaign.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Penn State and Kentucky might bring identical 9-3 records into the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, but those marks mean very different things to both teams. For the Nittany Lions, it means failing to defeat all three of their most competitive division rivals, even during a year that saw Michigan State struggle so mightily on offense. Meanwhile, Kentucky finally beat a nemesis in Florida that it hadn’t defeated in over 30 years. Head coach Mark Stoops led the program closer to the SEC Championship game than anyone thought possible.

Nine wins is a damn good accomplishment for these Cats, even if they did lay a massive egg in the SEC finale against Tennessee. The next step is to defeat Penn State and prove that Kentucky’s big season is legit and not just the product of a soft SEC East. For Penn State, the Citrus Bowl is an opportunity to beat a ranked opponent with some big wins on its resume. The Cats might just be a better version of what Iowa and Wisconsin were trying to be this year, but that doesn’t make a win in Orlando any less significant.

For more on what makes Kentucky such a dangerous opponent, we reached out to Julian Mitchell from SB Nation’s SEC blog, Team Speed Kills. Thanks to Julian for helping us out with our Citrus Bowl coverage!

Black Shoe Diaries: Kentucky did its best work in September with huge wins over Florida and Mississippi State. However, since then, the team’s biggest win is at Missouri with the help of a controversial pass interference call. Have the Cats faded over the course of the season, or are they back in the saddle after a romp over Lousiville?

Team Speed Kills: You could certainly say that Kentucky’s offense started to fade in October. Starting with the Texas A&M game on October 6 through the Tennessee game on November 10, Benny Snell only rushed for 100 yards once, with 169 against Vanderbilt. He did break 100 in the last two contests against Middle Tennessee and Louisville, but we all know how poor Louisville was this season. Basically, the film from the first five games accumulated and defensive coordinators noticed that the Cats were running up the inside gaps a lot.

The senior-laden defense was strong all season and I don’t think it was sneaky mediocre like some are saying. This unit only allowed 400 yards twice all season and it happened in back-to-back games against Georgia and Tennessee. The Tennessee game was kind of an all-systems failure. Not to sound too cliche, but it looked like a classic hangover after losing to UGA with the SEC East title on the line in the previous week. The Tennessee game is skewing the perception of this group that also intercepted South Carolina’s Jake Bentley three times while holding him to 148 yards (he threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns against Clemson), held Mississippi State to 201 total yards, and didn’t allow Missouri to gain a single first down during the second half in Columbia.

BSD: Terry Wilson completes a high percentage of his throws, but he only had eight touchdown passes on the season before he put three on Louisville last month. Do you think the Cats are taking enough chances in the passing game given the attention that Benny Snell Jr. attracts?

TSK: In short, I don’t think nearly enough risks were taken in passing game during the season, but it’s hard to get too upset when Kentucky is 9-3.

Part of that mid-season lull on offense was due to predictable play calling. It was pitch fork and tiki torch time for offensive coordinator Eddie Gran in the fan base at many points this season. Terry Wilson had a very short leash being a first-year starter, and looked too afraid to make mistakes at some points. The best example of this is the Texas A&M game in which he took six sacks. At other times, mostly during the first few games, the rush offense was rolling so well that Kentucky didn’t really need to throw. So it was sort of a mixed bag. Wilson has shown flashes, however. He made some big throws in the Florida and Louisville games especially and engineered an impressive drive to win at Missouri before that call was made. Bad defense or not, it was encouraging to see the staff let him sling it around against Louisville.

BSD: With over 700 carries in his Kentucky career, Snell knows how to tote the rock. Has the heavy load taken a toll on the veteran back? Does Kentucky target him enough in the passing game? Do you see him making a big impact in the NFL?

TSK: Snell is a bruising back and all of those tough runs have left him banged up at some point during each of his three seasons, but he’s never missed any significant time. He runs with a chip on his shoulder 100 percent of the time, so I do think this will translate well to the NFL. According to PFF College, 63.3 percent of his 1300-plus yards came after contact this season. I knew it was a lot, but this is absurd. He does need to improve as a pass catcher and route runner and this would be his biggest flaw in terms of making it in the league. He only has 29 career receptions, with 17 coming in 2018. I wouldn’t say he was underused in the passing game because he’s still a work in progress in that regard.

BSD: Josh Allen is an absolute terror, leading the Cats in sacks and tackles. How is he so disruptive against both the pass and the run? One year from now, who is the more famous Josh Allen? This one or the guy who plays in Buffalo?

TSK: I think the best way to describe Josh Allen is that he’s an oversized safety at 6’5”, 260 pounds. He has a long and lean frame, and he’s fast with great balance. Combine that with a high motor, and you have a monster. There were times this season where you could tell the offensive lines and quarterbacks were absolutely spent by the fourth quarter just from dealing with him. In just a year, QB Josh will still be more famous, but in five years, linebacker Josh should be a household name if this trajectory continues.

BSD: About a third of Kentucky’s completions are caught by Lynn Bowden Jr. What’s allowed him to have such a breakout campaign after catching just 17 passes as a freshman?

TSK: Bowden had to work himself into shape and favor with the staff. Prior to last season, he didn’t arrive on campus until August 5 because he was dealing with eligibility issues. After missing summer workouts, you could tell he was coming around towards the end of 2017 and has broken out in 2018. He’s the most shifty receiver Kentucky has had since Randall Cobb, so it was only a matter of time before he became a staple.

BSD: After taking over a 2-10 team six years ago, Mark Stoops has slowly improved Kentucky into an SEC contender. Can Stoops maintain this level of performance? Do you see him staying at Kentucky in the long term?

TSK: The biggest thing Mark Stoops changed for Kentucky was the recruiting. Instead of focusing solely on SEC country where too many battles are lost, more emphasis was placed on the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Only so many of those kids can go Ohio State, the Michigan schools, and Penn State. If Kentucky keeps their recruiting as wide-reaching and successful as it is now, they will keep contending.

As far as him staying, I think he will for at least a few more seasons. The athletic department has invested a lot into the program in his tenure and stuck by him during some rough patches in the program’s ascension. As long as he feels like he hasn’t hit a ceiling, I think he’ll stick around. A job at a school with all the resources in a conference with all the resources is hard to leave unless a true blue blood comes calling.

BSD: The Wildcats are seven-point underdogs on New Year’s Day. How do you see the Citrus Bowl going for the Cats?

TSK: I think this a very fair spread. I don’t see either team running away with this one. Bias aside, I do think Kentucky will be hungrier for a few reasons and this will lead to a close game. The seniors have brought the program out of the cellar by making bowl games the last couple of seasons, but haven’t won one yet. Benny Snell will be ready to run hard since this is his final game, (By the way, he only needs 107 yards to become UK’s all-time leading rusher) but also because of his bogus ejection from the Music City Bowl last season. Josh Allen is playing.

The Cats want to do nothing besides change the national perception of Kentucky football and a storied program like Penn State is the perfect opponent to start this process against.

I can’t say for certain that all of this will translate to a Kentucky win, but expect a much more open playbook from the Wildcat offense and less success than most are predicting from the Penn State offense. I believe we’ll see a score within 10 points, no matter who comes out on top.

Thanks again to Julian for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on SEC sports all year round, be sure to check out Team Speed Kills!