Kentucky — Penn State’s Citrus Bowl opponent — is having a program-altering season. The Wildcats, 9-3 for the first time since the Reagan administration, ended their 31-game losing streak to Florida, pushed for an SEC East crown and landed in their best bowl game in quite some time.
Oh, and they have a potential top-three pick in April’s NFL draft in edge rusher Josh Allen. But that’s all general knowledge, surface-level stuff the casual Penn State fan has brought up in Citrus Bowl conversations over the past two weeks.
But after breaking down four Kentucky games (vs. Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Missouri), we’ve gained a better sense of how Kentucky got to nine wins — and how it can be defeated. Here’s a full breakdown of what makes the Wildcats tick.
Sink or Snell
Benny Snell Jr. is the lifeblood of Kentucky’s offense. The first-team All-SEC selection who put up 1,305 rushing yards this year is a projected Day 2 pick in the NFL draft, ranking No. 5 among running backs according to DraftTek.com.
And, understandably, the Wildcats like to get him going early and often. On first downs, Kentucky typically lines up in the pistol with Snell behind quarterback Terry Wilson, allowing the back to get a head start before running between the tackles. And on third-and-short, Snell is oftentimes by himself in the Wildcat. Against Florida, Kentucky converted 4 of 5 Wildcat tries on third-and-2 or shorter.
Snell’s speed isn’t elite, but his attitude and power? It’s what will make him a player on Sundays. In one of Snell’s biggest games of the year — a 175-yard performance in Kentucky’s 27-16 win at Florida — 122 of his yards came after contact, per Pro Football Focus. Against Mississippi State’s vaunted defensive front, Snell pushed for 165 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries.
Take a look at this run against the Bulldogs. Snell drags a Mississippi State defender nine yards. Yes, nine yards.
One other thing about that clip: Watch Snell’s lead blocker, No. 65. Kentucky guard Bunchy Stallings, a first-team AP All-American. He’s a load at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds. The Wildcats love to run behind him, and it’s easy to see why. Penn State defensive tackle Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens will have their hands full with Stallings.
As for the rest of Kentucky’s line, it isn’t as impressive. In the Wildcats’ three SEC losses, Snell averaged 71.3 yards per game. Not bad, but far from his 127 yards-per-game average in Kentucky’s eight FBS wins. So, what was the difference? The four guys around Stallings and tight end C.J. Conrad couldn’t handle seven, sometimes eight, defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Tennessee’s front, which was gashed for 227 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground by Mizzou, manhandled Kentucky’s line. Snell managed 81 yards on 20 carries, a respectable number. But some of the blowups at the line of scrimmage were ugly.
On the run
A major reason why Tennessee and others felt comfortable stacking the box is Wilson’s limitations as a passer. Rarely will the sophomore signal-caller sit in the pocket, patiently go through his progressions and hit the fourth read for a first down. That’s not his style.
Wilson — whose 1,768 passing yards and 11 touchdowns rank 12th and 13th, respectively, in the SEC — owns a 67.6 completion percentage, 0.01 percent off Tua Tagovailoa’s mark. That’s because most of Kentucky’s routes are slants and screens. He is a two-read quarterback, especially early in games, before taking off. That’s when he’s at his best, anyway.
Wilson’s scrambling ability is a problem. His 518 yards is second among SEC quarterbacks behind Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald.
The closest thing Penn State has faced in 2018 is Kent State’s Woody Barrett, who finished the season with 503 rushing yards and seven scoring runs. In a 63-10 win in Week 3, the Nittany Lions held the former Auburn quarterback to minus-18 rushing yards.
But Wilson is better than Barrett. The former Oregon signee had 105 rushing yards against Florida, including a 31-yard jaw-dropper.
Two plays later, he extended the play and found David Bouvier for a 29-yard score.
Not only will Shareef Miller and Yetur Gross-Matos be tasked with keeping contain, but it will also be on Cam Brown, Micah Parsons and Garrett Taylor to bottle up Wilson. Expect defensive coordinator Brent Pry to sprinkle in pressure, but primarily spy Wilson, send four and make him beat Penn State’s secondary from the pocket.
Lynn Bowden — the No. 164 prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, per 247 Sports — had offers from Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, and, yes, Penn State. But the four-star Ohio athlete wasn’t swayed by Joe Moorhead and the Nittany Lions. He picked Mark Stoops and Kentucky and, boy, has he made an impact.
Bowden, a second-team All-SEC selection, had a 54-yard touchdown catch in Gainesville that silenced The Swamp. His 13 catches for 166 yards and 67-yard punt return touchdown against Missouri guided Kentucky to a 15-14 win.
It’s not often that Bowden hits the home-run play. He has five catches of 30 yards or more, only 8.06 percent of his 62 grabs. Comparatively, Penn State’s KJ Hamler has six receptions of 30 yards or more on 41 catches (14.63 percent).
But every time Bowden gets the ball, like Hamler, he’s looking to break the big one. The onus will be on John Reid and Donovan Johnson to keep up with the ever-shifting slot receiver.
Much is made of Josh Allen, who led the SEC with 14 sacks and has won three national defensive player of the year awards. But don’t overlook No. 56, linebacker Kash Daniel.
In truth, it will be hard to miss him. The junior linebacker who smears his face in eye black is an emotional, in-your-face player. Daniel did his best “Stone Cold” Steve Austin impression after a team-leading 11-tackle performance at Florida. Before the regular-season finale at Cardinal Stadium, he walked onto Louisville’s field saying, “This is my house.” Daniel had two TFLs in Kentucky’s 56-10 win.
It’s understandable for opponents to dislike Daniel. But he backs up his talk. Daniel’s 76 tackles are tied for third on the team, and his five quarterback hurries are second behind only Allen. For a middle linebacker, Daniel shoots out of a cannon and has impressive closing speed.
Sometimes double-team attention on Allen, who will play in the Citrus Bowl, opens up opportunities for Daniel. Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover will earn his paycheck preparing Ryan Bates, Will Fries, Connor McGovern, Steven Gonzalez and Michal Menet for Allen, Daniel and company.