Two weeks ago, Penn State’s defensive coordinator watched Kentucky film while flying from one in-home recruiting visit to another. Brent Pry saw jet motions, RPOs, the Wildcat and unbalanced looks. He saw an offense that is “majoring” in running the ball, one that will be tough to stop on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl.
“They have an All-American running back and an awfully good offensive line,” Pry said at Penn State’s bowl media day last week. “We’ve got our hands full.”
Added head coach James Franklin: “That’s going to be an important part of the game: Trying to take away the thing they pride themselves on doing.”
That All-American rusher Pry mentioned is, of course, Benny Snell Jr. — a first-team All-SEC pick and the lifeblood of Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats also boast All-American guard Bunchy Stallings, scrambling quarterback Terry Wilson and a coach who has a penchant for producing top-tier running games.
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With thoughts from Penn State players and coaches, here’s a breakdown of how and why Kentucky’s run game could cause the Nittany Lions fits in Orlando, Fla.
Ever since running backs coach Eddie Gran came aboard in 2016, Kentucky has made it a priority to run the ball. And that’s understandable given Gran’s background.
The longtime assistant coach has mentored running backs south of the Mason-Dixon Line for 20-plus years. Some of Gran’s success stories include:
Ole Miss’ Deuce McAllister, 1998: In Gran’s final year in Oxford, the future two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion rushed for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. McAllister was a first-round pick in 2001.
Auburn’s Ronnie Brown & Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, 2004: In an undefeated campaign, this legendary running back duo led the Tigers with a combined for 2,543 yards and 22 touchdowns from scrimmage. Brown and Williams were the second and fifth overall picks of the 2005 NFL draft, respectively.
Florida State’s Devonta Freeman & Chris Thompson, 2012: Thompson sustained an injury, and Freeman took over — but the end-of-season stats between these two and James Wilder Jr. were impressive. The Seminoles, en route to a 12-2 season, averaged 203 rushing yards per game and found the end zone a program-record 37 times on the ground. Freeman was the NFL’s rushing leader in 2015.
Gran not only has a history of developing stellar running backs, but it’s how he uses them that makes it so difficult to defend. As Pry mentioned, the sweeps, shifts and subtle wrinkles of Kentucky’s run game make opposing defenses think.
Franklin called it a “chess match.”
“They’re going to be trying to do things formation-wise to get an advantage in the box based on numbers or leverage or angles,” Franklin said. “We’re trying to find a way in each formation to have a numbers advantage and feel good about our angles and leverage. That’s the chess match.”
RB Benny Snell
If that’s the chess match, then Snell is the queen on the board. His attacking nature and ability to beat front sevens north-south or east-west proved difficult to deal with in the SEC.
Snell led the conference in carries (263) and rushing yards (1,305) with his 14 scores second to only Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams. Snell’s powerful style is his calling card. In Kentucky’s biggest win of the year, a 27-16 victory at Florida, Snell had 175 rushing yards, 122 of which came after contact.
Now, Snell isn’t necessarily a home-run threat. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson and nine other players in the SEC have more runs of 30 yards or more this season.
But Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said Snell has “big-play potential,” and by the Nittany Lions’ standards, that’s true. The Penn State staff logs “explosive plays” — either a run of 12-plus yards or a pass of 15-plus yards — on a weekly basis. Snell’s 34 runs of 10 yards or more ranks second in the conference.
“We have to try to keep him in the box,” Gross-Matos said, “and not let him get out.”
OL Bunchy Stallings
In late November, Penn State faced Wisconsin guards Michael Dieter and Beau Benzschawel — a pair of preseason All-Americans and projected early-round 2019 draft picks. Pry believes Kentucky has a guy that stacks up to Dieter, Benzschawel and every other interior lineman the Nittany Lions have gone against in 2018.
Stallings isn’t just a candidate for college football’s all-name team. He’s a 6-foot-7 anchor.
Stallings, an end-of-season first-team All-American alongside Benzschawel, is the linchpin of Kentucky’s offensive line — a unit that advanced statistics likes quite a bit. According to Football Outsiders, the Wildcats’ line ranks 16th nationally in opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain four-plus yards) and owns the 18th-lowest stuff rate (percentage of carries that are stopped for no gain or worse).
Pry said Stallings has a “really good” NFL career ahead of him and called dealing with him “a heck of a challenge.” But the coordinator noted how well his front four fared against Dieter, Benzschawel, Iowa’s line and more highly touted big boys. Penn State’s interior tackles were gashed on a few occasions this year, most notably Jonathan Taylor’s 71-yard touchdown run. But outside of that, Kevin Givens, Robert Windsor and company held up.
“When you look back at the season at our run defense, I mean, there have been holes at times. We’ve given up some explosive runs that we weren’t happy with,” Pry said. “But over the course of the season, I feel pretty good about the guys matching up. There weren’t too many times where we were just getting blocked. But it’s going to be a challenge (against Kentucky).”
Penn State has not faced a riverboat scrambler like Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson, the final piece to an effective rushing attack.
Wilson, a former Oregon signal-caller, is faster than Snell — and most running backs, for that matter. The 6-foot-3 passer once ran a 4.53 40-yard dash, better than former players such as Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Georgia’s Sony Michel, Iowa’s Akrum Wadley and 15 other backs at the 2018 NFL Combine.
Pry, who called Wilson “a dynamite player,” knows his defense will have to stay disciplined to bottle up both Wilson and Snell. The Nittany Lions have watched film from Kentucky’s games against Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Mississippi State film is especially helpful; former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was calling plays for Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs.
Those games gave the Nittany Lions a good idea of what to expect. But the Citrus Bowl hinges on how the Nittany Lions follow through on their direction.
“It’s more difficult when a quarterback is as mobile as he is,” Gross-Matos said. “You have to take really great angles on him. If you get in too close, he’s going to turn in and out on you. Just being disciplined is important.”
Added safety Garrett Taylor: “That’s going to be huge in this game.”