Mitch Barnhart: Citrus Bowl is step forward for our program
When the clothes were sticking to his body from the sweat that covered him from head to cleats, Terry Wilson would try to think of his reasons why.
“As an athlete, you have to envision these types of things,” Kentucky’s junior quarterback explained on Sunday night. “It helps when you’re in the heat, 103 degrees, and you’re looking forward to something to get you past that hump.
“You’ve got to look big, to look to want to win the SEC East, to get to a big bowl game and I feel like we did that as a team.”
Indeed, Kentucky did.
The Cats learned on Sunday afternoon that they would be playing in its first New Year’s Day Bowl game in 20 years as the Southeastern Conference’s representative in the Citrus Bowl. UK will meet Penn State at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m.
“We’ve worked so hard to get to this situation we’re in right now,” Wilson said of Kentucky, which finished No. 14 overall nationally in the final College Football Playoff Rankings on Sunday. “We’re going to go down there and show everybody what we can do.”
As linebacker Kash Daniel gets ready to tackle these extra 15 practices to prep for the Nittany Lions, his own reasons why are a long list, beginning with getting Kentucky to 10 wins for the first time since 1977 and getting the first bowl victory of the Mark Stoops era.
“We’ve been to two bowl games, but we came back empty-handed both times,” Daniel said on Sunday night after the announcement. “It’s great you made it. But if you made it, you might as well win it, so that’s our mindset going into this one.”
And for a Kentucky kid from Paintsville, the idea of getting to win No. 10 “would mean the world.
“That’s something that hasn’t been done around here in a really long time. Not only just to be a part of it now, but when I’m done playing football I can look back and say that was my team and be proud of it. Something I can hold onto the rest of my life.”
Members of this senior class, which embraced him when he was just a high school kid, are a big part of Daniel’s motivation to bring home a Citrus Bowl trophy, too.
“The grind we’ve been through both the season and the offseason — killing yourself basically to get to be the best team you can possibly be — when you put that kind of work in with guys who mean so much to you, it’s easy to go out and give it your all for them,” the junior linebacker said. “I’m really excited to play with these seniors one last time.”
Stoops, who landed from one of his many recruiting visits just in time to get on the Citrus Bowl teleconference Sunday night, was asked about both programs trying to get to double-digit wins this season.
The Cats’ coach pointed back to this senior class that has taken UK to three straight bowl games and sending it out on a high note as his own reason why.
“This group already has an impressive legacy for the things they’ve done and they want to continue to build on that and set the tone for our young kids for the future,” Stoops said.
“So absolutely important to us playing a team with a great reputation and history in Penn State and it will mean a lot to our players and our fan base.”
At the news conference on Sunday night, Kentucky’s athletics director said he hopes all of the above will be fans’ reasons why they should make a trip to Orlando over the holiday break to cheer on this group.
Pre-order sales for the tickets have gone “extremely well,” Mitch Barnhart said. Those tickets left will be open to the public starting Monday morning on the UK ticket website.
“We need them to show up in force,” Barnhart said of fans. “These guys deserve it. They deserve to have their fans out there in a big-time atmosphere in a big-time game on New Year’s Day. Kentucky fans, this is our chance to show why the Big Blue Nation is as special as it is.”
Kentucky vs. Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.