Mark Story

UK’s Snell, Allen cement status as all-time Cats’ football icons

Who will Mark Stoops miss more, Benny Snell or Josh Allen?

After his team's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked which of his stars will he miss most -- Benny Snell or Josh Allen? UK finished the season 10-3.
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After his team's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked which of his stars will he miss most -- Benny Snell or Josh Allen? UK finished the season 10-3.

Babe Parilli and Bob Gain are synonymous with Bear Bryant’s 11-1 Kentucky team in 1950.

Derrick Ramsey and Art Still are forever identified with Fran Curci’s 10-1 UK team from 1977.

On Tuesday, with a chance to lead Mark Stoops’ 2018 Wildcats to what would only be Kentucky’s third 10-win season ever, Josh Allen and Benny Snell etched their names into the highest level of Kentucky football lore.

With its star players leading the way, No. 14 Kentucky (10-3) outlasted No. 12 Penn State (9-4) 27-24 to win the VRBO Citrus Bowl before 59,167 fans in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium on New Year’s Day.

The victory gave the Wildcats their first 10-win season since 1977. It was UK’s first victory in a New Year’s Day bowl since the 1952 Cotton Bowl. It was the Cats’ first triumph in a bowl played in the state of Florida ever.

One of the sweetest days in modern Kentucky football history owed much to two guys who — quite reasonably — could have chosen to protect themselves for the NFL Draft and opted not to play.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about setting the school's career rushing record during UK's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Snell finished with 144 yards on 26 carries.

Instead, in the game in which he passed Sonny Collins to become UK’s all-time leading rusher, Snell finished with 144 yards and two touchdowns and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Meanwhile, Allen capped his stellar senior season with three quarterback sacks and a blocked field goal.

Penn State Coach James Franklin noted that both Snell and Allen had the choice not to play.

“I think it’s a real positive thing for the Kentucky program and a real positive thing for college football” that they did, Franklin said.

After spending his December traveling the nation picking up national defensive player of the year awards, Allen is now projected to be a top five, maybe higher, choice in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Players of similar profile sat out bowls all around the country.

Snell, the 5-foot-11, 223-pound junior from Westerville, Ohio, announced in the run-up to Tuesday’s game that he will be entering the 2019 draft, too.

He is not projected to go as high as Allen, but a running back injured in a bowl game could sabotage any chance of being drafted at all.

Kentucky defeated Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

“It shows what kind of great teammates they are,” UK linebacker Kash Daniel said. “That they were not only about themselves, that they care more about this team and the guys who play for it.”

Kentucky senior tight end C.J. Conrad — who has NFL aspirations of his own — said the departing Wildcats players talked about their futures and whether they should play in UK’s bowl game after Kentucky’s regular-season finale vs. Louisville.

“We felt like if we sat out, if Josh and Benny sat out, we felt maybe we were sending the wrong message to the younger guys on the team,” Conrad said.

So, for one final time, Kentucky backers got to see the electricity of Allen rushing the quarterback off the edge. Three times, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound product of Montclair, N.J., sacked the quarterback.

Yet Allen seemed more animated about the Jake Pinegar field goal he blocked with 51 seconds left in the second quarter.

“It was the first time all season I felt like we ran that (field-goal-block) play,” Allen said. “We practice it all the time. ... I knew it was going to work.”

Snell broke Collins’ all-time UK rushing mark (3,835 yards) on a 12-yard touchdown run with 1:35 left in the third quarter that put the Wildcats ahead 27-7.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. The win gave UK 10 victories in a season for the first time since 1977.

“I was so excited, I didn’t even have words for how I was feeling,” Snell said. “I was speechless.”

Yet after Penn State QB Trace McSorley led a determined Penn State comeback that pulled the Nittany Lions within 27-24 on a Pinegar field goal with 4:12 left in the game, Snell’s best work was yet to come.

With Kentucky desperately needing to run clock, Snell carried the ball eight straight times and picked up two crucial first downs to allow the Wildcats to take all but the final one second off the clock.

The new UK all-time rushing leader leaves Lexington with 3,873 yards.

Just like Allen leaves Kentucky as the school’s all-time (31.5) and single-season (17) sacks leader.

Most importantly of all, in the word association of 10-win Kentucky football teams, it will now be Parilli and Gain, Ramsey and Still — and Snell and Allen.

“I love those guys,” UK’s Stoops said afterward.

Giddy Kentucky football fans far and wide should share that sentiment.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.


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