Finding out the destination and the opponent were mostly an afterthought for Kentucky’s players.
It’s been more about erasing the bad feelings and the bad vibes of their regular season, which ended in back-to-back losses, including a Louisville game marred by penalties and other issues.
“That bad taste we’ve got in our mouth from our last game still hasn’t gone away,” quarterback Stephen Johnson said on Sunday night after UK learned that it would be facing Northwestern in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 29.
“So a lot of us are really trying to go out and get this last win. … We’ve got this bad taste in our mouth and are anxious and eager to go in and win this last one.”
Kentucky, which finished the season 7-5 for the second straight year, doesn’t know much about Northwestern, and most of the UK coaches are still on the road recruiting for the new early signing period on Dec. 20.
But just having new film to watch helps move forward, wide receiver Charles Walker said. It gives them renewed focus.
“I just think we’re hungry as a team,” the senior said. “We’ve had a week off and we’ve had players coming in every day watching film, doing workouts, getting footwork right. I think the team is hungry.”
The Cats will face a Northwestern team that finished 9-3 overall and second in the Big Ten’s West Division. The northern Wildcats were No. 21 overall in the final College Football Playoff rankings announced on Sunday before bowl pairings.
After losing three of their first five games this season, those Wildcats bounced back to win their final seven games, including a victory over a ranked Michigan State team. They had wins over Maryland, Iowa, MSU, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois to round out the season. Three of those games were overtime victories.
Northwestern is the nation’s ninth-best rushing defense, holding opponents to 3.3 yards per carry and allowing just 10 touchdowns on the ground this season.
They have permitted just 1,335 yards rushing. It will be quite a test for Kentucky’s Benny Snell, who led the Southeastern Conference in regular-season rushing yards (1,318) and touchdowns (18).
The Wildcats, who have reached a bowl game in three straight seasons and eight of the last 10 under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, have their own strong ground game behind Justin Jackson. He has run for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
That will be a huge test for a UK rushing defense that gave up a combined 727 yards on the ground in those final two losses at Georgia and against the Cardinals.
The Music City Bowl game is “a great opportunity for our team to respond and to re-establish who we want to be” both on the field and off, Mitch Barnhart said on Sunday night.
The UK athletics director acknowledged that he received multiple emails after the Louisville loss that included a brawl on the sidelines and a string of penalties that head coach Mark Stoops called “undisciplined” and “unacceptable” last week.
Barnhart shared those emails with the team, telling them: “Guys, this is not who we are. … That’s not who we’ve been.”
The challenge now is for those players to go out and get that eighth win and erase those bad feelings.
In a wide-ranging, nearly 25-minute news conference, Barnhart also addressed the issue of the timing of the bowl game, which falls less than three hours after the start of UK’s basketball game against Louisville at Rupp Arena.
“There’s plenty of fans to go around,” he said, confirming that UK has guaranteed to sell 8,000 bowl tickets per its contract with the Music City Bowl. “I hope the fans will be in Rupp Arena cheering our basketball program that day, and I hope there will be another 25,000, 30,000 fans down in Nashville cheering our football program on.”
Barnhart hopes to work with the sports council in Nashville to create a scenario where fans can take in the basketball game and then go to the stadium for the football game directly after.
He said of the nearly competing events: “Two really cool parties, gotta figure out how to throw them and make sure we host them properly.”
Music City Bowl
Kentucky vs. Northwestern
When: 4:30 p.m. EST Dec. 29
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville
Records: UK 7-5; Northwestern 9-3
Tickets: Visit UKathletics.com