UK Football

In UK and Georgia Tech, TaxSlayer Bowl features young teams with promise and flair for the run

There’s no better way to say it than how Georgia Tech’s coach said it.

“I would think that both teams, for a lack of a better cliché, dance with the one that brung ya,” Paul Johnson said shortly after the matchup was announced for Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl game between Kentucky and the Yellow Jackets.

Turns out the ones that “brung” both teams have strikingly similar features.

Both Kentucky and Georgia Tech come into the game with some of the youngest teams in the country with some 18 starters (nine on offense, nine on defense) penciled in to return for the Cats.

“We still have a really young team,” Johnson said on Friday as both teams met with the media for a final time before the 11 a.m. game at EverBank Field. “We’ll have 17 or 16 starters back next year.”

Kentucky is equally as young and returns a bulk of its talent on both sides of the ball, including nearly 90 percent of its rushing and receiving yardage. The Cats also bring back more than 75 percent of their tackles and 97.6 percent of their sacks.

Maybe these two teams could meet again in a bigger bowl next year?

Then there’s the similarity in how their seasons unfolded. Suffice it to say that on week five it looked unlikely that either team would be headed to Florida for a New Year’s Eve bowl this season.

After starting the season with two bad consecutive losses, the Cats (7-5) needed to win seven of their final 10 games to secure a big-time bowl win, including a win over then-No. 11 Louisville.

“We worked all offseason to finish,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “It started with our winter conditioning, the weight lifting. It started with our fourth quarter program, doing more, having more physical practices last spring, harder two-a-days.

“To see that come to fruition, to see us finish the way we did, to play our best football at the end of the year, against our archrivals on the road, to put us in a position to be in this game says an awful lot.”

For Georgia Tech (8-4) it was about overcoming a stretch in the middle of the season when it lost three straight games and four of six.

The Yellow Jackets righted the season by winning three straight, including games over ranked opponents like Virginia Tech and against their own in-state rival in Georgia to end the season on a high note.

Now the goal for both teams is to keep that momentum going with a big postseason victory.

“It would mean a lot to this program for this eighth win,” UK quarterback Stephen Johnson said. “It really would mean a lot for the seniors, just to build this program up with recruiting, the new guys that came in. It sets a new point for us to get past, to go past eight games.”

Both teams will try to reach greater heights in the quickest way possible, with the most common thing that “brung” them being their ability to run the ball.

Kentucky has two 1,000-yard rushers this season in Boom Williams and Benny Snell and the Cats’ ground attack is 16th best in the nation at 241.3 yards a game and 29 touchdowns.

The Jackets with their unique triple option attack are the country’s 10th best rushing offense, averaging 257.4 yards a game with 32 scores.

Each team also does what it can to capitalize off the run with big-play potential.

“Both teams also have the capability of making big plays in the run game and with the play action,” Stoops said. “The ability to run the ball, it also creates the opportunity for big plays. So I’m sure both teams will be looking to limit that from our opponent.”

The big play was on Johnson’s mind, too.

“The biggest thing is trying to, like every week, limit the big plays,” the Tech coach said. “They do a great job with their wildcat stuff. Their quarterback is very capable of throwing the ball when he has to. They’ve got receivers that can get downfield. It will be a tough matchup for our defense.”

Seems to be another thing they have in common.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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