No. 12 Penn State would like nothing more than to record its third straight 10-win season. But, for that to happen, the Nittany Lions need to get past the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019.
How can the Nittany Lions avoid disappointment? Here are the key matchups in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., that we think will go a long way in determining the winner.
John McGonigal: Penn State’s DTs vs. Kentucky OG Bunchy Stallings
Everyone’s eyes will be peeled to what Josh Allen and Kentucky’s front seven can do, and rightfully so. But don’t forget about the other battle in the trenches.
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Kentucky boasts an effective running game that puts All-SEC back Benny Snell in advantageous situations, whether it’s the Wildcat, pistol formation or read-options. But regardless of what look the Wildcats use, running behind Stallings — a 6-foot-3, 315-pound first-team All-American — is Snell’s biggest advantage.
Stallings, a two-time SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, helped pave the way for Snell’s 1,305 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. He is Kentucky’s first offensive lineman to receive All-American honors since Mike Pfeifer in 1989 and the program’s first guard named to the AP All-SEC First Team since John Schlarman in ‘97.
All this from a kid who was barely a three-star recruit in high school, who sat at No. 1,761 overall in the 2014 class, per 247 Sports. The Birmingham native had offers from seven schools: Kentucky, Mississippi State, Colorado, Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, Jacksonville State and Tennessee State. Now, Stallings is a 2019 NFL draft prospect — one Kevin Givens, Robert Windsor and company will have to deal with.
As Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry pointed out at bowl media day, the Nittany Lions’ interior defensive line evolved as the season progressed. Sure, there were missed assignments as Pitt ran for 214 first-half yards against Penn State and botched gap integrity as Illinois averaged 7.9 yards per carry in the first two quarters back in September. Jonathan Taylor’s 71-yard touchdown run on Wisconsin’s first possession wasn’t a good look, either.
But Givens fought through double teams to cause disruption in opposing backfields all season, Windsor has quietly tallied 7.5 sacks (four in November), and the backups — especially Antonio Shelton and true freshman P.J. Mustipher — finished the season strong.
Kentucky can’t really throw; Wildcats quarterback Terry Wilson is an accurate, yet limited passer whose 1,768 yards ranked 12th in the SEC and 95th nationally. So if Givens, Windsor and Penn State’s other defensive tackles can limit Stallings’ impact and slow down Snell at the line of scrimmage, Kentucky is going to have a hard time moving the ball. That makes it a matchup to watch.
Josh Moyer: Penn State QB Trace McSorley vs. Kentucky pass rush
Kentucky has been able to consistently throw off quarterbacks with constant pressure. And, although McSorley has earned a reputation for being calm and cool, UK is going to test that about as well as any opponent this season.
The Wildcats are recording a sack or QB pressure once about every six drop-backs, and just nine FBS teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns (12). Obviously, linebacker Josh Allen — widely regarded as a likely top-5 NFL draft pick — is a big, big part of that.
He’s a pass-rushing specialist whom Penn State will have to game-plan around; James Franklin said as much. Allen boasts a school-record 14 sacks this season, five forced fumbles and a half-dozen QB pressures. He also helps spearhead the nation’s No. 17 pass defense, which is the second-best Power-5 pass D Penn State has faced all season, behind Michigan. (And, although he was hurt, McSorley’s 5-of-13 passing performance against the Wolverines wasn’t exactly memorable … at least for the right reasons.)
The fact is McSorley will be hard-pressed to post big numbers. He’s thrown more than 230 yards only once this season, while the Wildcats have allowed more than 230 yards just twice. McSorley will need to make every attempt count and, whether the runs are designed or not, he’ll need to use his legs to his advantage.
McSorley-Allen is a heavyweight fight worth watching here. In past seasons, Allen might overpursue or run past the QB. But LB coach Brad White has put a lot of time in this year in making sure, once Allen gets past the tackle, that he gets the quarterback. That’s one of Allen’s strengths. One of McSorley’s? Avoiding those kinds of hits.
Will Allen and Co. put a halt to Penn State’s explosive plays? Or will McSorley end his memorable collegiate career with another notch in his belt? This is a key matchup — and it should also be one of the most exciting.