It will be bittersweet when the ball is kicked off Tuesday afternoon at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
On one hand, it will be satisfying for everyone associated with the program, fans included, to see the culmination of this historic run. A run that will end with a New Year’s Day bowl game against a traditional college football powerhouse like Penn State.
But on the other hand, it may be equally difficult to digest that this season is officially coming to an end and everyone will be forced to say goodbye to some of the best players to ever rock Kentucky blue.
Kentucky football is well past the stage of celebrating moral victories. Despite entering the game as a 6-point underdog, the Cats have to execute a game plan that results in them finishing the game victorious.
A huge bowl win against Penn State would pave the way for sustained success heading into next year and beyond. This additional six weeks of practice has already given UK a leg up on next year, but just imagine if Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow could hit the recruiting trail touting a 10 win season capped off by a New Year’s Day bowl win. Yahtzee!
It is still difficult to process the reality that a Citrus Bowl win for the Kentucky football program would ensure its first 10-win season since 1977. After watching UK struggle for so many decades with seemingly no progress, it’s something that many (or most) people thought they would probably never see in their lifetime. It may not have been the accelerated path that fans wanted, but Mark Stoops has delivered in his sixth season as head coach.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a Penn State victory would mark its third-straight season of 10+ wins under head coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions, led by Trace McSorley, have proven their stature as one of the top football programs in America. In fact, this is the first year in the last three seasons that Penn State is not playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl.
For perspective, this will be Kentucky’s 18th bowl game in the school’s history and Penn State’s 49th. The last time the two teams played was 1999’s Outback Bowl in which Penn State won 26-14.
In summary, a Citrus Bowl win would be monumental. So, let’s look at the keys to the game.
Control the pace
Both teams have stellar defenses and will rely heavily on controlling the game on the defensive side of the ball. On the season, Kentucky is allowing just 16.25 points per game and Penn state isn’t far behind them at 20 points per game. Both of these defenses are the real deal and should be respected as such.
However, it really surprised me to learn just how poorly the Nittany Lions are at controlling the time of possession. Penn State’s average time of possession is just 27.5 minutes per game compared to 32.5 for their opponents. This season, Kentucky hasn’t been much better as the Cats are averaging just under 33 minutes of possession per contest.
But the difference I see is that UK would prefer to slow things down and they have a key running back, Benny Snell, that can allow them to do so. If Kentucky can keep Benny Snell on the field and Trace McSorley off the field, that will play a big role in the outcome of this game.
If you have watched Kentucky football at all this season, then you know that scoring points tends to come at a premium. It is rare that Terry Wilson has executed explosive drives that resulted in quick home-run play touchdowns. I would have to assume that Eddie Gran’s strategy will be to control the tempo on offense and establish Benny Snell in the run game, as it has been all season.
Remember, Snell needs 107 yards to break Kentucky’s all-time rushing record. So, it’s safe to say he will be running with even more vigor than normal.
Penn State has surrendered 14 rushing touchdowns this year and opponents are averaging 168 yards per game on the ground. Like most games this year, Kentucky needs to rely on what got them to the Citrus Bowl and let Benny Snell do his thing. The Cats cannot afford quick 3-and-outs if they want to win.
Regardless of what happens in the Citrus Bowl on Saturday, Trace McSorley will end his career as the best quarterback to ever play for the Nittany Lions. For his career, McSorley has accounted for 75 total touchdowns with nearly a 60% completion rate.
His overall numbers were down this season, due in large part to the departures of several key weapons on the offensive side of the ball. But he’s still a veteran leader who will want to end his career with Penn State on a high note.
Here is how Blaine Bradley of Fansided described McSorley’s game.
“One thing is for sure – Kentucky football is past the stage of celebrating moral. Despite entering the game as a 6 point underdog, the Cats have to execute a game plan that results in them finishing the game victorious. A huge bowl win against Penn State would pave the way for sustained success heading into next year and beyond. His presence in the pocket and ability to feel rushers is what makes him stand out. What he lacks in size and accuracy, he makes up for with the ability to make big plays with his feet.”
Kentucky’s secondary has been great all year, but it did show signs of vulnerability late in the year, especially against Tennessee. Keeping McSorley in check will be a crucial point to Kentucky winning the game, as McSorley has only thrown 6 interceptions all season compared to Wilson’s 8.
I know he’s good, but you have to think that Trace McSorley’s heart skipped a beat after learning that Josh Allen had no plans to skip the Citrus bowl. It’s unclear if Allen will maintain his usual workload, but there is no doubt he will be rushing the edge on big plays.
Truthfully, I think you could say that winning the turnover battle is crucial for any football game. But with Kentucky’s inability to score points quickly it will be an even bigger deal in the Citrus bowl. Luckily, Matt House has had nearly six weeks to develop a game plan and look for any weaknesses to exploit.
Get off to a quick start
The nice thing about playing an SEC schedule is that Kentucky has already played against some excellent competition. That being said, Penn State will still be one of, if not the best, team that the Cats have played all season. So, coming out ready to play is important.
It’s no secret that UK has struggled to score points this season. Getting down early in this game would not be ideal. Mark Stoops needs to have his team focused and ready to play from the moment the ball is kicked off.
There will be a multitude of distractions to compete with in Orlando, including a shopping spree at Best Buy. Each Citrus Bowl participant received a $400 Best Buy gift card to spend during a scheduled shopping outing. Players will have additional family and friends around, on top of not being on the normal game day routine.
The first quarter of the game will be extremely critical to establish the tone.
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1
Game time: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Online Stream: You can watch the game online using Watch ESPN
Replay: SEC Network (check local listings) and ESPN+
Announcers: Dave Flemming, Brock Huard and Laura Rutledge will have the call.
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington or online at UKAthletics.com.
Odds: Penn State is a 6.5 point favorite
Prediction: TeamRankings projects a 28-21 Penn State win. numberFire is going with a 24-20 win for the Nittany Lions.