Photo by Braxton Howard
Kentucky Football

Wildcats are Citrus Bowl Champions

January 1, 2019

Mark Stoops and this Wildcat team had one final streak to end, the Wildcat football program hadn’t won a bowl game in a decade. The Wildcats traveled to Orlando, Florida with this single unified mission – become Citrus Bowl Champions by defeating James Franklin and his Penn State Nittany Lions.  Wildcat stars and NFL prospects Benny Snell and Josh Allen didn’t sit out this game, it wasn’t a meaningless game to this band of brothers. In the end, the Big Blue Nation walked away in utter bliss as this transformational team not only won the game 27-24 but propelled the program by winning 10 games, the first Wildcat team to do so since 1977.

Nittany Lion QB, Trace McSorley played inspired football, suffering a (reported) broken foot just before halftime. He returned to the game as his team was down 27-10 to start the fourth quarter. He quickly led Penn State to two quick touchdowns closing the lead to 27-21. On Kentucky’s next possession they would go 3-and-out and be forced to punt.  McSorley once again led his team charging down the field, before Kentucky would make a huge third-down stop. In one of the most puzzling calls of the game, Penn State head man James Franklin elected to kick a field goal with just over four minutes on the clock, closing the lead to three, 27-24.

Kentucky was able to convert two first downs thanks to stout offensive line play led by Bunchy Stallings. However, the Wildcats were successful in forcing Penn State to burn through all of their remaining timeouts on that possession. Facing a 4th and short and with 9 seconds remaining on the clock, the Wildcats elected to punt. UK Punter Max Duffy delivered a masterful punt that bounced, taking valuable seconds off the clock before the ball was downed with 1 second remaining on the clock. Penn State attempted a short pass and subsequent lateral which was fumbled and recovered by UK. Ballgame.

There were many great moments and compelling storylines in this game, most of which can be derived from Kentucky’s supremely talented senior-laden squad. Benny Snell needed 107 rushing yards coming into the game to become UK's all-time rushing leader and finished the game with 144 yards on 26 carries. Snell would break through at the end of the third quarter on a 12-yard touchdown run which seemingly sealed UKs victory – he slid into the end zone on both knees, head bowed while being surrounded by his teammates. It was only a moment that Benny Snell could have, a storybook ending to a storybook career for the Junior who is entering this spring’s NFL Draft.

Josh Allen will be a millionaire in just a few months as the result of being a top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He could’ve easily sat out the game and nobody would’ve blamed him, been mad at him, or held it against him. Instead, Allen finished with 3 sacks and a blocked field goal. He was menacing throughout the game, always double-teamed which resulted in his teammates to make big play after big play. McSorley and his backup, Freshman Sean Clifford were hit, harassed, and handcuffed for 3 quarters before McSorely nearly made the aforementioned fourth quarter come back.

The biggest play of the game came in the first quarter by none other than Lynn Bowden. With UK leading 3-0, the UK defense forced Penn State to punt on their second possession, and Bowden returned said punt 58 yards to the house for a 10-0 UK lead. Bowden would finish the game with a team-leading 5 receptions for 84 and 2 punt returns for 68 yards while returning 2 kickoffs for 21 yards.

Senior Kicker Miles Butler went 2 for 2 on the day and made all 3 extra-point attempts. Not too shabby for a senior who was just supposed to be a bridge from all-time kicker Austin McGinnis to hotshot and big-legged Freshman Chance Poore.  If Chance was forced into action today, he would’ve lost his redshirt as he had already appeared in three games this season.  This writer was nearly certain the game would come down to a 45-yard field goal and I was anxious to see what Stoops would do in that scenario, but that’s a story I’ll never get to write.  Early on it appeared as if the specialist would have a large impact on the outcome of the game – UK’s Max Duffy and Penn State’s Blake Gillikin were booming punt after punt, combining for 659 punt yards. Gillikin would gain the edge on average yards (51.2) while Duffy would contribute more yardage to his team (403).

Ultimately, James Franklin made a few coaching decisions that cost his team the game. On State’s first possession, facing a 4th and 2 inside their own 30-yard line, Franklin called for a fake punt which was snuffed out by the Kentucky special team unit. Kentucky would turn that turn-over into an early 3-0 lead, and ultimately, that three points decided the outcome of the game. Franklin also opted to kick the field goal in the fourth which would close the margin to three manageable points – everyone anticipated that was four down territory, and that surely Franklin would take advantage of the momentum and complete the come back in one fell swoop. Instead, he watched helplessly from the sidelines, unlike many other UK opponents, as Benny Snell put the finishing touches on the win.

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Wildcats are Citrus Bowl Champions

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