How Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 SEC) and Northwestern (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) match up at each position for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl — with a game prediction:
Kentucky senior Stephen Johnson (2,048 passing yards, 60.7 percent completions, 10 TDs vs. four interceptions) struggled through the air in UK’s season-ending losses to Georgia and Louisville, completing only 20 of 47 passes combined. Northwestern has a stingy run defense but a vulnerable pass defense, so the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Johnson will need to rediscover his throwing touch. Northwestern junior Clayton Thorson (2,809 passing yards, 60.6 percent completions, 15 TDs vs. 12 interceptions) was chosen Third Team All-Big Ten. The 6-4, 225-pound product of Wheaton, Ill., is 26-12 as Northwestern’s starting QB, making him the school’s all-time wins leader.
After Benny Snell was held to 18 yards on seven carries at Mississippi State, the Kentucky sophomore subsequently exploded. The 5-11, 225-pound product of Westerville, Ohio, ran for 777 yards and 12 TDs in UK’s final five games. With 2,409 career yards entering the Music City Bowl, Snell needs 1,427 yards to pass Sonny Collins (3,835) as Kentucky’s all-time career rushing leader. Northwestern senior Justin Jackson (1,154 yards, nine TDs) has joined former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner, as the only backs in Big Ten history to run for more than 1,000 yards in four seasons. The 5-11, 200-pound senior from Carol Stream, Ill., is also a lethal threat (43 catches, 266 yards) in the passing game.
Kentucky senior Garrett Johnson (team-best 46 receptions, 500 yards, two TDs) will seek to end his distinguished UK career with a bounce-back after being held without a catch against Louisville. Senior Kayaune Ross and sophomore Tavin Richardson each had three receptions against U of L. Northwestern junior Flynn Nagel leads NU in catches (47, 483 yards. two TDs) but sophomore Bennett Skowronek (42 catches, 619 yards, five TDs) is the big-play threat. Senior Macan Wilson (32, 446, one) is also capable.
With Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad (16 catches, 286 yards, four TDs) out for the Music City Bowl due to a foot injury, senior Greg Hart (three catches, 25 yards, one TD) should play a prominent role in his final career game. It will be interesting to see if UK can get sophomore Justin Rigg (one catch, six yards) involved in the passing game. Northwestern’s Garrett Dickerson (37 catches, 401 yards, four TDs) is a major weapon. Backup Cameron Green (20, 170, two) is also a viable target.
Kentucky senior tackle Kyle Meadows will make his 36th and final career start Friday. Redshirt freshman center Drake Jackson, whose insertion into the starting lineup stabilized UK’s offensive front, will make his seventh career start. It will be interesting to see if the Kentucky offensive line can open holes against a Northwestern defense that ended the regular season ninth in the country (111.3 yards a game) against the run. Northwestern guard Tommy Doles was Third Team All-Big Ten. He leads a unit that has allowed only 10 sacks during NU’s current seven-game winning streak.
True freshman nose guard Quinton Bohanna (11 tackles) has been the breakout player for UK in 2017. Redshirt freshman tackle Kordell Looney had three tackles against U of L. Northwestern sophomore end Joe Gaziano made seven of his eight sacks against Big Ten foes. Junior tackle Jordan Thompson (26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) has Lexington ties. His father, James Thompson, played on Henry Clay’s 1981 Class 4A state championship team.
Kentucky senior MLB Courtney Love (82 tackles, 3.5 TFL) had a team-high 10 tackles in the loss to Louisville. The 6-2, 242-pound senior from Youngstown, Ohio, subsequently won the 2017 Wuerffel Trophy recognizing college football’s top community servant. Northwestern redshirt freshman MLB Paddy Fisher (110 tackles, four forced fumbles) was named Big Ten Network Defensive Rookie of the Year. Junior SLB Nate Hall (79 tackles, five sacks) led the Big Ten in TFL with 16.5.
Kentucky strong safety Mike Edwards leads the Wildcats in tackles (90), pass breakups (six) and interceptions (four). An NFL Draft-eligible junior, will this be Edwards’ final game in UK blue? Northwestern safeties Godwin Igwebuike (72 tackles, nine pass breakups, two interceptions) and Kyle Queiro (58 tackles, eight pass breakups, 5.5 TFL, four interceptions) are the strength of the secondary for NU.
Kentucky senior place-kicker Austin MacGinnis (21-of-27 field goals, long of 53 yards) will seek to add to his school record 354 career points. Graduate transfer punter Matt Panton (42.7 average, 20 of 57 punts downed inside the 20) and folk hero punt coverage gunner Charles Moushey (10 tackles) will also play their final games for UK. Northwestern place-kicker Charlie Kuhbander is accurate (12-of-14 field goals) but does not have a big leg (long of 40 yards). Luke Otto handles kickoffs. Punter Hunter Niswander averages 42.9 yards and has stopped 19 of 63 punts inside the 20. Riley Lees has a 39-yard punt return and a 36-yard kickoff return this season.
Northwestern 35, Kentucky 23