As Kentucky prepares to wrap up its best football season in four decades, the Wildcats take aim at a handful of remaining goals: A New Year’s Day victory, a 10th win in the season, and a win over Penn State, a program that is as prominent about college football’s “haves” as Kentucky usually is among the “have nots.”
If ever a Wildcat team deserved some bold predictions, it’s this one. We do our best to oblige.
1. This won’t be Mark Stoops’ last game at UK
Sure, this angle came out of nowhere, and from the outside, there is plenty of noise that Stoops might be heading to Miami to replace Mark Richt. Not so fast. Kentucky stood by its man when the climate was less favorable and he’ll return the favor. Frankly, Miami is a tough job — requires going head-to-head with Florida and Florida State within the state, has relatively lackluster facilities, and has major, major expectations. If Stoops goes 8-4 next year in Lexington, they’ll start building a statue of him. If he does it in Corral Gables, he’ll be on the hot seat.
2. 107 for Benny
Kentucky’s Benny Snell finds himself 107 yards from the school’s career rushing record. He’ll find a way to get it. Penn State is a good run defense (168 rushing yards per game allowed), but the Nittany Lions have been dinged for 200 rushing yards five times in 2018. Meanwhile, Kentucky has been held under 195 yards rushing just four times. UK is 1-3 in those games, and 8-0 when they reach 195. Snell gets his 107, and if UK doesn’t reach 195, they’ll do better than the 70, 84, or 77 yards rushing they had in their three losses.
3. C.J. Conrad will be pivotal
Kentucky will want to run and run and run again, but Penn State won’t let UK bully them. Third-down conversions will be key, and with QB Terry Wilson needing a security blanket, don’t be surprised if senior tight end C.J. Conrad finishes his UK career with a big game — say 5 catches for 60 yards and a score.
4. The Kentucky offense has to avoid negative plays
Kentucky’s offense has many jobs, but a pivotal one is to avoid beating itself. In the Wildcats’ 3 losses, they allowed 5 sacks per game. In their 9 wins, they allowed exactly 1 sack per game. PSU has an able pass rush, led by Yetur Gross-Matos, who had 20 tackles for loss and 8 sacks. Kentucky probably won’t need to put up 30 points or 500 yards … but it needs to avoid handing PSU big plays that put the Wildcats behind the chains. Hold PSU to three or fewer sacks, and commit 2 or fewer turnovers and the Wildcats should be fine.
5. Watch for Bowden to do something unusual
A bowl game is a time to get to the back of the playbook, and UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran doubtlessly has some good stuff for Lynn Bowden. Watch for Bowden in the Wildcat, Bowden passing the ball, Bowden on end-arounds. Kentucky will find him for a big play, probably in some unusual way.
6. Josh Allen will be the difference-maker again
In PSU’s 9 wins, they’ve allowed just 15 sacks — 1.7 per game. In their 3 losses, they’ve allowed 3.3 sacks per game. That’s where Josh Allen will soon be earning the big bucks. He’ll find a way to harass Trace McSorley into sacks or interceptions, and will cap his career as perhaps UK’s best defensive player ever. If Allen can create a pair of sacks, either on his own, or for teammates like Jamar Watson or Josh Pascal, it’ll be a long day for PSU.
7. Darius West could be the difference
Senior safety Darius West has been the heart of Kentucky’s defense, and after a fairly rough end to the regular season, look for West to rebound against Penn State. The only time all year that Penn State had a worse than -1 turnover margin was the 42-7 thrashing they took at the hands of Michigan. If Kentucky wants to get PSU into a negative margin, they’ll need some big plays for West, whose scoop and score helped UK almost steal a win in College Station this year.
8. A changing of the linebacker guard
Senior Jordan Jones is out for UK, but given the fact that Jones played the latter half of the season with a cast on his broken hand, his replacement by freshman Christopher Oats might actually be an advantage. It could be a coincidence that UK stopped crushing the run exactly when Jones and fellow linebacker Kash Daniel each played with a hand cast … or it could be an indication that they were each basically playing with one arm. Oats played well in his start at Texas A&M, and has 24 tackles and a pair of sacks this year. It wouldn’t be surprising for him to have 8-10 tackles and a tackle for loss or two in the Citrus Bowl.
9. Miles Sanders could be trouble
Penn State QB Trace McSorley had an up-and-down 2018, and while he concerns many observers, recent history says UK might struggle more with running back Miles Sanders. Sanders rushed for over 1,200 yards this year, and UK allowed 170+ rushing yards in their last four regular-season games. The UK defense that contained Drew Lock and Nick Fitzgerald won’t struggle with McSorley, but it might get gashed a few times by Sanders, who looks good for 130-140 rushing yards and a touchdown.
10. Kentucky shocks the world — or at least Vegas — one more time
UK won four games this season as an underdog, three coming against point spreads greater than the 6.5 points by which PSU is favored. Can Kentucky replicate its script from games against Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri? Well, the common threads are tenacious defense, which throttled three pretty good quarterbacks and an offense that wasn’t explosive, but created enough scoring opportunities to win. Run defense is a concern for Kentucky, but provided that Miles Sanders doesn’t beat up UK’s defense too badly, Kentucky is set for another game that they can grab and wrangle away in a physical fourth quarter.
PSU will win total yardage, and might even win time of possession, but UK wins the game, maybe 24-21.