While it’s nice to finally know who it will be playing next, Kentucky made it clear last week that it wasn’t too concerned with who is next as much as what it expects next: A victory.
Win No. 10 this season and a first bowl victory of the Mark Stoops era.
“We haven’t won a bowl game yet since I’ve been here,” tight end C.J. Conrad said after the 56-10 win over Louisville to end the regular season. “So, extremely important for us. A lot of history on the line. We want to get our 10th win.”
Kentucky will be seeking that 10th victory, and its first bowl win since 2009, when it takes on Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. The Wildcats accepted the bid Sunday to play in their first New Year’s Day game since the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 1999, in Tampa, Fla. Coincidentally, UK also played Penn State in that game.
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This time around, it will be in the Citrus Bowl n Orlando, Fla., at Camping World Stadium (1 p.m. on ABC).
While the Nittany Lions aren’t a regular on the Kentucky schedule, they are guided by a familiar face in James Franklin, the former coach at Vanderbilt, who has a 3-0 record against the Cats.
Penn State finished the 2018 season 9-3 and third in the Big Ten’s East Division, winning its final three games. The Nittany Lions’ losses this season were to Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
It will be a battle of top-20 scoring defenses and two teams that are adept at running the ball.
The Nittany Lions are led by senior quarterback Trace McSorley’s 190.7 yards per game passing and his 60 yards per game on the ground. The signal caller leads Penn State in rushing touchdowns with 11.
Junior running back Miles Sanders averages 101.9 yards per game and has 1,223 yards and nine touchdowns.
Defensively, Penn State is holding opponents to 20 points a game, No. 20 nationally. The defense is allowing 168.4 yards a game on the ground, good enough for No. 71 in the country.
After missing most of the Cats’ last bowl game after being ejected, Benny Snell will have some extra motivation to run. The junior running back needs just 107 yards to become Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher, besting Sonny Collins’ 43-year-old record.
Snell, UK’s offensive line and quarterback Terry Wilson will have their hands full on Jan. 1. The Nittany Lions are tied for third-most sacks in the country at 43 and they are No. 7 in tackles for loss with 100 total or 8.3 per game.
They have three defenders among the nation’s top 50 in sacks this season in Yetur Gross-Matos (eight sacks), Robert Windsor (7.5) and Shareef Miller (seven).
Kentucky has faced Penn State five times in program history, with the last time coming 20 years ago in the Outback Bowl, the last time the Cats played in a New Year’s Day bowl.
This will be Kentucky’s first trip to the Citrus Bowl, but Penn State has played in it five times, most recently in 2009. The Nittany Lions are 2-3 in the Orlando bowl.
All time, UK is 2-3 versus the Nittany Lions. Kentucky beat Penn State 22-6 in 1976 and 24-20 in 1977. The Nittany Lions won 10-3 in 1975, 30-0 in 1978 and 26-14 in the Outback Bowl to end the 1998 season.
Kentucky, making its third straight postseason trip, is 8-9 all time in bowl games, but the Cats haven’t won one since the 2009 Liberty Bowl. Since then, UK has fallen short in the 2009 Music City Bowl, the 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl, the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl and then last season’s loss to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl.
The Cats are 0-3 in bowl games played in Florida with losses in the 1950 Orange Bowl in Miami, the 1999 Outback Bowl in Tampa and the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
While all of the stats and history and pageantry of a New Year’s Day bowl game are important to Kentucky, it’s focused on getting win No. 10, Stoops said after the Louisville game.
“There’s something about that, you hear 10 and it is significant,” said Stoops, who would be the first Kentucky coach since Fran Curci in 1977 to get the Cats to 10 wins. “You only get so many opportunities. It’s very important.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in there that wanna win. We’ll try to make sure they’re in a great mindset and go in there and give it everything we’ve got to try to get another victory.”
Kentucky vs. Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.