Photo by Keyli Chisesi (Go Big Blue Country)
The Kentucky Wildcats and Northwestern Wildcats are set to square off in the 20th edition of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky enters with a record of 7-5 (4-4 SEC) while No. 21 Northwestern owns an overall record of 9-3 (7-2 Big Ten).
Kentucky started the 2017 season strong and raced to a record of 6-2 after eight games. However, things begin to fall apart in the final month of the season. Ole Miss escaped Lexington with a last-second win and after Kentucky’s best overall performance of the season in a win vs. Vanderbilt, the Wildcats were outmatched in blowout losses to Georgia and Louisville.
Fast-forward to Friday and Kentucky is searching for the programs first bowl victory since the 2008 Liberty Bowl vs. East Carolina. Additionally, Mark Stoops is looking to win his first bowl game at Kentucky after leading the Wildcats to the TaxSlayer Bowl a year ago.
Keys to a Kentucky Win
Heavy Dose of Benny Snell
It’s no secret that the strength of the Kentucky offense is the running game, as Kentucky relies heavily on sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr. The All-SEC performer did everything and more for the Wildcats during the regular season, rushing for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Snell turned his play up a notch late in the season, as he rushed for 777 yards in the Wildcats final five games, including 12 touchdowns. For Kentucky to have a chance vs. Northwestern, Snell has to receive plenty of touches. If the Wildcats can have success on the ground and control time of possession, it will strengthen their chances of leaving Nashville with a victory.
A Healthy Stephen Johnson
Kentucky senior quarterback Stephen Johnson is one of the toughest players to suit up for the blue and white but after his numbers declined late in the season, it was obvious the UK signal caller was banged up. Late in the regular season, Johnson didn’t look like himself and Mark Stoops even admitted that Johnson was banged up a little bit.
Now, after a month away from contact, Johnson should be fully healthy and ready to return to what Kentucky fans saw during the first nine games of the season. The ground game will be the focal point for Eddie Gran’s offense but if Kentucky wants any shot at winning, Johnson has to make plays in the passing game and with his legs.
Win Special Teams
Special teams play is one of the most important factors of any college football game and for the most part this season, Kentucky has been solid in all phases. A number of players have made plays on special teams for Kentucky this season and a few big plays would go a long way on Friday.
Whether it be a big kick/punt return, made field goal, or blocked kick/punt, a huge momentum swing in special teams would be huge. On another note, Kentucky can’t afford to give up big plays on special teams.
An Early Lead
For Kentucky to have a real shot at winning, they must get out to a fast start. Unlike what occurred in the Louisville game where the Cardinals jumped out to a 14-0 lead, Kentucky has to make positive plays early.
If the Wildcats can make a few plays early in the game, they can assure themselves of having a chance to win in the fourth quarter. However, if allow Northwestern to have their way early, things could get ugly fast.
Collective Effort Defensively
With the suspension of outside linebacker/defensive end Denzil Ware, the Wildcats are already facing an uphill climb in stopping Northwestern star running back Justin Jackson. Freshman Josh Paschal, who is mostly a third down guy, will slide in to take his spot.
The biggest concern with losing Ware is Paschal playing a high number of snaps. Expect Jackson and the Northwestern rushing attack to run a lot of action to his side to stay away from Allen.
On another note, other guys have to step up, especially in the secondary. If Kentucky has any shot at winning, the secondary cannot make it easy for Clayton Thorson to throw the football. Thorson isn’t elusive in the pocket, so they shouldn’t have to worry about him making too many plays with his legs. If Kentucky can have success stopping the run and forcing Northwestern into predictable pass, expect the Cats to dial up some pressure.
Prediction: Kentucky 34, Northwestern 31
MVP: Benny Snell Jr.