While all eyes are on Saturday’s college football playoff semifinal matchups, No. 12 Penn State will be focused on its upcoming New Year’s Day clash in the VRBO Citrus Bowl against the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats.
Some believe this game may not be as important of a postseason contest for the Nittany Lions. This contest isn’t quite at the level of a New Year’s Six bowl that James Franklin’s squad has grown accustomed to the past two seasons.
However, this game is still incredibly important for Penn State and the rebuilding of the program. The Nittany Lions are only 2-2 in bowl games under Franklin, and have yet to beat a team from the highly regarded top pedigree of college football, the SEC.
To check both of those boxes and clinch a third straight 10-win season would do wonders for the project Franklin is building in Happy Valley – in addition to temporarily silencing critics about Penn State being snake bitten against ranked teams.
Claiming victory to start off 2019 will not be easy though. It will take a sound game plan and a hard fought 60 minutes on both sides of the ball for the Nittany Lions to come out on top. Something that is a lot easier said than done for them this season.
Kentucky Offense vs. Penn State Defense
It’s not incredibly ambitious to call Kentucky’s offense one-dimensional. The Wildcats have proven to have a deadly rushing attack. The duo of junior running back Benny Snell Jr. and sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson have led the way. The two totaled for 1,818 yards and 19 touchdown runs on the season. Each player is the second most prolific runner at his respective position in the SEC.
Despite Wilson’s rushing success, it is opposed by a lackluster passing game. He is ranked 10th in passing efficiency out of 14 SEC starting quarterbacks. The Wildcats’ quarterback only totaled 1,768 yards with 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
Penn State’s path to victory on this side of the ball appears simple: make Terry Wilson win the game through the air.
Although, this may be a lot easier said than done. Expect first team all-Big Ten selection Amani Oruwariye to cover Kentucky’s top receiving threat, sophomore Lynn Bowden Jr. Doing so will neutralize the passing game. The rushing game will be significantly more difficult for this defense to stop. When given similar looks earlier in the season, Brent Pry and the Penn State defense has struggled to adjust.
The two best comparisons to Kentucky’s offense on Penn State’s schedule were Illinois and Michigan. Both teams used a dual-threat quarterback to expose holes in the Nittany Lion’s defense for 245 yards and 259 yards respectively. These were easily two of the worst performances by Penn State’s defense all season.
In order to adjust, expect Penn State to keep a spy on Wilson and key on Snell early. Kentucky has been prone to stalling on offense throughout the season. If the Nittany Lion defense can come up with stops early and prevent the Wildcats from dominating time of possession, perhaps the fatigue factor which saw Michigan’s rushing attack eventually overwhelm Penn State in the second half, won’t play a role.
Penn State Offense vs. Kentucky Defense
With a month in between the Citrus Bowl and the regular season finale, a far healthier Trace McSorley looks to take the reigns of the Penn State offense one final time after struggling with a knee problem through the last five games. The senior quarterback will need to come up big, but he can’t do it alone.
Penn State will need to take advantage of its speed in the passing game to spread Kentucky out. The Nittany Lions’ receivers can ill afford to be plagued by drops as they have been the majority of the season.
Inconsistencies at offensive line have also continued to plague Penn State throughout the season. Kentucky’s star pass rusher, Josh Allen, will be a huge x-factor for the Nittany Lions to try and contain.
Allen has accumulated 14 sacks and forced five fumbles this season en route to becoming one of the top prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Should the line struggle to contain Allen and the remainder of the pass rush, it will be up to the now-healthy McSorley to scramble and add to his 723-yard rushing total.
In Kentucky’s weakest defensive performance of the season, the Georgia Bulldogs exposed the Wildcats with rushes around the edge after drawing Kentucky inside. With freshman running back Ricky Slade being worked back into Penn State’s rotation late in the regular season, he and Miles Sanders could be worked laterally around the edges in hope of sustained success on the ground.
Redshirt freshman receiver KJ Hamler has also been used around the edges on sweep plays in order to open up defenses.
Setting up the running attack early may also open up play-action later on in the game. Although, Penn State must be careful to avoid turnovers. Both Sanders and Slade have struggled with losing fumbles throughout the season.
Penn State Experience vs Kentucky Inexperience
In a contest which appears to be closely contested, with two very good defenses going against decent offenses at best, the difference may be whoever can be most comfortable in the moment.
Kentucky is on the rise, with its most successful campaign in 34 years. The Wildcats are not accustomed to the big stage of a New Year’s Day bowl.
Penn State is much further along, with its core experiencing a Big Ten championship game and two New Year’s Six bowls. The Nittany Lions should have an easier time settling into the game, and hopefully be able to execute late in game, as they have failed to do with more experienced competition in the past.
The potential exists for a huge win in the Penn State football program. This would be a great building block to bigger and better things to make their way to Happy Valley. It just comes down to the execution of players who have already delivered so much, to come through one last time.
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