They stuck the landing.
For all the things this 2018 Kentucky football team had accomplished — snapping the Florida losing streak; winning nine regular-season games, including five SEC wins; collecting conference and national postseason awards; earning a New Year’s Day bowl berth — checking off that final box on a special season might have been the most difficult, and the most important.
“It was very important to finish,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops after his 14th-ranked Cats did just that, knocking off 12th-ranked Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl before a crowd of 59,167 under perfect conditions at Camping World Stadium.
Star running back Benny Snell rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns and star linebacker Josh Allen recorded three sacks and blocked a field goal as a team both loose and determined finished 10-3, the school’s first 10-win team since 1977 and just second since 1950.
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After all, bowl games can be an unpredictable business. You never know who is and who is not going to show up. There’s a lot of time between that final regular-season game and the bowl games. There’s plenty of time to lose your focus, or in the case of the Cats, to savor the moment.
“We had so much fun it ought to be illegal how much fun we had this week,” Stoops said in the postgame press conference. “We just enjoyed being with each other and just spending time and enjoying being with each other and taking it in.”
One final time. No team is ever exactly the same from year-to-year, after all. People come. People go. Freshmen arrive. Seniors depart. And this was a special group of seniors, most from the program-turning class of 2015. So when it came time to prepare, the Cats were ready.
Said Stoops, “We had a great belief in our locker room,” he said.
Early on, UK turned a failed Penn State fake punt into a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, sophomore Lynn Bowden took a punt 58 yards for a touchdown to stretch the lead to 10-0. All this as UK’s star outside linebacker Josh Allen was recording a pair of sacks (he finished with three) and blocking a Penn State field goal.
By halftime, however, the Nittany Lions had cut the Kentucky lead to 10-7 and the UK offense was sputtering. Total yards first half: Penn State 176, Kentucky 87. Third quarter, something changed, however. Snell opened the second half with a 32-yard burst. Five plays later, he scored from 2 yards out for a 17-7 UK lead. Next series, the Cats drove 65 yards in 11 plays for a 28-yard Miles Butler field goal and a 20-7 lead.
Third possession, Bowden got back in on the act, taking a Terry Wilson pass 54 yards to the Penn State 12. Next play, Snell rumbled up the middle for (a) the 12-yard score and (b) the yardage needed to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“It was the best feeling,” said Snell as Kentucky led 27-7 with 1:35 left.
From there, however, there were plenty of anxious moments for a fan base far too familiar with defeats seized from the jaws of victory. Penn State wasn’t going down without a fight. Back-to-back scores cut the lead to 27-21. And then there were the Nittany Lions facing a fourth-and-7 at the UK 14-yard line with under five minutes remaining. Instead of going for the win right then and there, Penn State Coach James Franklin opted for the 32-yard field goal to cut the deficit to three in hopes of getting the ball back.
Penn State got it back, all right. With one second left. When everyone in Camping World Stadium knew Snell would get the ball, he got the ball. And the yards. A 4-yard run on third-and-3 picked up one first down. A 6-yard run on second-and-6 brought another. Ball game.
“We couldn’t get the stop,” said Franklin afterward.
In the end, Kentucky couldn’t be stopped. Not this season. Not this group, one that wanted badly to finish what it started, and finish it the right way. And it did.