2017 was supposed to be the year when Mark Stoops and Kentucky football took the next step towards contending for an SEC East title, but a heart-breaking and controversial loss to Florida, an unexpected defeat at the hands of Mississippi, and another pedestrian season from quarterback Stephen Johnson resulted in seven wins and a bowl game for the second straight year. Sure, that’s a solid performance that UK fans can be proud of, but it’s not unreasonable to ask for more when Georgia is the only other team in your division with genuine SEC Championship aspirations.
The good news is that a national top-30 recruiting class and key talent returning all over the field means that the future remains bright for Stoops’ team. For now, they turn their focus to the Music City Bowl, and a Dec. 29th date with Northwestern in Nashville.
NORTHWESTERN: WHO THEY ARE
Known across the land for their devotion to excellence in academics–even on their athletic teams–and the extraordinarily impressive list of alumni that they will absolutely discuss at length whenever possible, Northwestern football has spent the last two decades building a very respectable brand. Much like their Bloomington-based conference counterparts, Northwestern’s current emphasis on competitive football was sparked by the tragic passing of their former coach, Randy Walker, who came to Evanston in 1998 and started making bowl appearances a regular thing. His successor is NW’s current coach, Pat Fitzgerald, whose physical coaching style mirrors the way he played when leading the team to its only Rose Bowl appearance back in 1995.
Although they haven’t won a Big Ten championship since splitting one three ways in 2000, Fitzgerald has guided the team to eight bowl appearances, with this year being their third straight. The level of consistency they’ve established in recent years makes them capable of finding ways to compete in just about any game they play.
ROAD TO THE BOWL
Despite coming into this matchup with nine wins and the #23 ranking in the AP poll, a closer look at Northwestern’s schedule reveals a team that was set up for an easy 2017. Only three of those wins came against bowl-eligible squads–Michigan State, Iowa, and Purdue–and two of those three were single-digit wins that came down to the final drive of the game. Their other three games against bowl-eligible schools–Wisconsin, Penn State, and Duke–were all losses, and while you can’t fault them for playing the schedule they’re handed, it’s worth asking whether they’re as well prepared for this game as Kentucky.
UK, by comparison, faced two bowl-eligible teams in their non-conference slate–Louisville and Southern Miss–as well as five more from within their own conference, and Tennessee and Florida teams that had the talent to win games, just not the coaching. They still managed to win only two fewer games than Northwestern did, so if Fitzgerald and his boys want to win this one, they need to treat this bowl the same as they would a key matchup against a Big Ten powerhouse.
Apart from a shared nickname, one area in which these two teams can related is the emphasis of their star running backs on offense. For Northwestern, that back is senior Justin Jackson, a player with no less than 250 carries, 1100 yards, or five touchdowns in any of his four seasons in Evanston. The leading rusher in school history, Jackson will see a high volume of carries as Fitzgerald attempts to control the pace of the game.
Jackson will have to be on top of his game, because Kentucky has the kind of defense that can life difficult for NW quarterback Clayton Thorson. Although he’s an overall more effective passer than his opposite at Kentucky, Thorson comes into this game with some distressing peripheral stats. Kentucky’s defense is one of the best in the nation at causing chaos in the backfield, with top-tier pass rushers like Josh Allen and Denzil Ware sparking a fierce linebacker unit that ranks among the most underrated in America. Thorson’s 60% completion rate, 12 interceptions, and mere six yards per attempt make it clear that he does not deal with pressure well, and Kentucky is prepared to bring plenty of it. Jackson will have to impose his will with runs up the middle in order to force UK to back off.
Still, even when Kentucky has a bad game against the run, they tend to compensate with an excellent performance against the pass. Thus, even if Jackson racks up copious yardage, he’ll have to put the ball in the end zone plenty of times, because he’s not likely to get much help.
Northwestern follows the same blueprint Kentucky does, for the most part. With four players with four-plus sacks and a high turnover rate, their defense stays in attack mode for most of the game and it tends to yield results. Defensive end Joe Gaziano is the NW equivalent of Allen and Ware, with 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and three pass breakups this year.
That said, Kentucky has three advantages here. For starters, Stephen Johnson is nowhere near the turnover machine that Thorson is; his combined interception and fumbles total is still lower than Thorson’s amount of interceptions alone. There’s also the emergence of freshman left tackle Landon Young, a five-star recruit who chose his home-state school over Alabama and has steadily improved with each passing week. He’ll draw the assignment of keeping Gaziano out of Kentucky’s backfield.
Where things really favor Kentucky requires further exploration. While Northwestern only yields 111 yards per game on the ground as a team, they become more vulnerable when facing elite running backs. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, a Heisman candidate, scored three times against them. Phenomenal Wisconsin freshman Johnathan Taylor had two touchdowns. And while their per game numbers are solid, there have been four games this year–and only once did this happen against a bowl-eligible team–where they’ve been torched for 140 yards or more on the ground. None of those things are good news when matched up against Kentucky’s Benny Snell, who became the first SEC back since Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno to post consecutive 1000-yard rushing seasons.
Although Johnson’s struggles as a passer have forced Kentucky to lean on Snell heavily, he’s rewarded Stoops’ faith with 18 touchdowns, the majority of which have come from 10+ yards out. As long as Johnson keeps playing mostly mistake-free, Snell will get more opportunities to break off a long TD run than Jackson will.
UK 26, NW 20. These two teams are so near-identical that I fully expect both Jackson and Snell to go for 150 yards and two scores. Both defenses will post three or four sacks, and both kickers will see plenty of work. The difference? Two Thorson turnovers–a pick and a forced fumble–will give Kentucky two extra field goal tries for senior kicker Austin MacGinnis, one of America’s most reliable scorers.
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