Wildcats prove they aren't the Kentucky football of old in 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory

by:Jack Pilgrim01/01/19
After winning the coin toss, an aggressive James Franklin elected to receive in an attempt to punch Kentucky in the mouth first. Penn State's first drive? Incompletion, incompletion, eight-yard run, and a botched fake punt at their own 33-yard line to force a turnover on downs. As his defense ran off the field for the first time, a fiery Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops shouted "Bring it on!" from the sideline. https://twitter.com/MrsTylerKSR/status/1080166232475742211 After running up the score in the final seconds back in 2013 with the game in hand as Vanderbilt's head coach, Stoops is no friend of Franklin. He wouldn't admit it publicly, but even beyond the historical significance ten wins would mean for the program, he wanted this game for revenge. "It was personal, make no mistake about it," Stoops later said on the KSR postgame show this evening. That initial drive would be the lasting theme of the game. Kentucky's blue-collar defense was enough to give the Wildcats their tenth win in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, and for Stoops, revenge was had. The Wildcats responded with a field goal from senior kicker Miles Butler to go up 3-0, followed by two massive stops on defense with a three-and-out and a missed field goal from Penn State to keep the Nittany Lions scoreless. One more defensive stop and forced punt later, Lynn Bowden caught the 58-yard boot at the UK 42-yard line and shifted his way through the Penn State defenders for an electric touchdown score to put the Cats up 10-0. Kentucky would allow a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the very next possession to bring the score to 10-7 in the Wildcats' favor. Following a Josh Allen field goal block with 1:52 remaining, Kentucky's lead would remain at three going into the half. After a relatively unimpressive half that consisted of just 87 total yards of offense, the Wildcats finally turned things on in the second half all thanks to Kentucky star running back Benny Snell. The junior back ran for 32 yards from scrimmage to open the half, eventually scoring on a two-yard touchdown run to bring the Kentucky lead to 17-7. Following another impressive defensive stop, the Wildcats trekked down the field for another score, this time in the form of a Butler field goal to make it 20-7. Following Lonnie Johnson's stretching interception on the ensuing Penn State drive, the magic finally kicked in for the Wildcat offense. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson found Bowden for a 54-yard completion to move the ball all the way down to the Nittany Lion 12-yard line. After a quick nod to the crowd, Benny Snell took the ball right up the gut for the 12-yard score, giving the star running back the Kentucky all-time rushing record. The image of Snell dropping to his knees realizing he broke Sonny Collins' mark of 3,835 career rushing yards was the highlight of the year. History was made to cap off arguably Kentucky's most impressive quarter of the season. Going into the fourth quarter, Kentucky held a 27-7 victory and unfortunately found themselves celebrating Snell's record-breaking touchdown run a bit too long. The focus the team had throughout the third quarter had vanished, and before we knew it, we had a ballgame once more. The Penn State offense managed three consecutive scoring drives, two touchdowns and one field goal, to cut the Wildcat lead to just three. Ball-in-hand with 4:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, nightmare scenarios ran through the collective minds of the Big Blue Nation. The Kentucky football we have come to know over the years absolutely would have found a way to lose that game. This isn't that same Kentucky football program. Just as he did two games into his career as a true freshman against South Carolina, Snell took the ball and found a way to grind out the victory in his final game in a Kentucky uniform. Inch by inch, the junior running back fought for two crucial first downs and milked the clock down to just nine seconds remaining on eight consecutive runs. Following a 33-yard punt from Max Duffy to pin the ball at the Penn State 17, the Nittany Lions would need a prayer with just one second remaining to break the hearts of the Kentucky coaches, players, and fans. Completion of 18 yards, lateral, fumble, recovery by Kentucky linebacker Chris Oats, knee. Game over. The prayer that had been answered year after year for just about every opposing football team finally played out in Kentucky's favor. UK's historic season was capped off with a 27-24 victory in the Citrus Bowl to give Kentucky their tenth win of the season, the first time they've managed that feat since 1977. The offense struggled and the defense gave up several huge plays in the fourth quarter to allow the comeback. The Penn State offense found their groove and the defense kept the Wildcats from putting any points on the board to end the game. But none of it matters. None of it at all. And none of it should be the focus of the game. The only focus should be celebrating history and the joy this Kentucky football team has given us this season. Like we've seen all year, Josh Allen put on a performance that solidified his status as a top-three prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound pass rusher finished with four tackles, three sacks, three tackles for loss, one QB hurry, and one blocked field goal. If you ask the man himself, he feels he should be the first player taken off the board. "My career speaks for itself," he said. "If I don't go No. 1, I don't know who is." Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow chimed in, as well. "If Josh Allen is not the first pick of the draft I will be lost for words," he said on Twitter. "He is by far the best player in college football hands down." Allen is just another example of these players and coaches letting the process play out over the years and seeing the fruits of their labor finally arrive. Coming into the program with little-to-no tangible success to be found in the win-loss column, this group of departing Wildcats ended their Kentucky careers with an afternoon we'll all remember for the rest of our lives. Each of them committed to play for a football program that just finished with records of either 2-10 or 5-7, trusting that they would be the ones to finally turn it around. They already proved that by winning nine games in the regular season, but this afternoon solidified that resurgence even further. They proved they were deserving of their ranking as a top-15 team in the nation. They proved they were deserving of a head-to-head matchup with an elite program like Penn State. This departing class proved Kentucky football is back, and it's here to stay. With a 144-yard, two-touchdown performance, Benny Snell got his shining moment on the big stage, breaking the all-time rushing record. If you say you didn't get emotional when he dropped to his knees after the touchdown, you're lying. Josh Allen put on a show in his final time wearing a Kentucky uniform, boosting his NFL Draft stock even further. He wreaked havoc on an elite Penn State offensive line, proving yet again he's the most dominant defensive player in all of college football. Beyond those two, Mike Edwards, Darius West, Lonnie Johnson, CJ Conrad, Derrick Baity, Bunchy Stallings, Dorian Baker, Adrian Middleton, Chris Westry, George Asafo-Adjei, Tymere Dubose, Miles Butler, David Bouvier, and Tristan Yeomans went out with a Citrus Bowl trophy lifted above their heads and history attached to their names. Their postgame celebration was one we've been waiting for for a long, long time. Emotional, joyous, and relieved, they finally had the hardware to bring back to Lexington. There's a legitimate argument for this football team being the greatest in program history, and they added to that by holding off one of the most prestigious programs in the nation down the stretch. It may not have been pretty every second of the way, but it ended with pure bliss, and that's all you can ask for. The weight was lifted off of the program's shoulders. On this fine New Year's Day, the Kentucky Wildcats proved they were the school sporting the correct shade of colors, one that deserved every bit of praise in the wide world of college football. Just ask Mark Stoops. "Don't ever, ever, question," Stoops said at the Citrus Bowl trophy presentation, "who the real Blue and White is." The real Blue and White made history today, and we're darn proud of it. [mobile_ad]

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