Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s Citrus Bowl win

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl:

1. According to Las Vegas, this was an upset.

Though both the Cats and the Nittany Lions rolled into Camping World Stadium with a 9-3 record, Penn State was a 6.5-point favorite. After all, James Franklin’s club was ranked 12th while UK was 14th. But surely name recognition had something to do with the spread. Penn State is a New Year’s Day bowl staple. Kentucky not so much.

But that fit pretty much fit UK’s mode of operation for the season. Despite their accomplishments, the Cats were favored in just five FBS games all year — Central Michigan, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Louisville. As an underdog, they ended up 4-2, thanks to the win over Penn State.

It takes time to change perception, however. Mark Stoops’ program has gone from two to five to five to seven to seven and now to 10 wins. The Cats have not taken a step back in the win column in any season. Of course, 10-3 will be tough to top. We’ll get to that in the third takeaway.

2. That magic 100-yard rushing mark.

We said coming into the game that Kentucky needed to rush for at least 100 yards to have a chance at the Citrus Bowl victory. Coming into the game, the Cats were 8-0 when they rushed for 100 or more yards as a team and just 1-3 when they failed to reach triple digits.

That held true again on New Year’s Day. Behind Benny Snell’s 144 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, UK ended up with 176 yards on the ground. That was against a Penn State run defense that was ranked 72nd in the nation, giving up 168.4 yards per game.

Snell needed 107 yards to pass Sonny Collins as the school’s all-time rushing leader. He did that on a 12-yard run for a TD with 1:35 left in the third quarter that pushed UK’s lead over the Nittany Lions to 27-7. From there, the Cats had to survive a Penn State comeback.

But Snell’s most impressive yards might have come at the end of the game. With Kentucky clinging to a three-point lead, the Cats took over on their own 25 with 4:12 remaining. Snell carried the ball eight straight times, picking up two crucial first downs that ultimately put the game away.

UK played with a physical presence all season — running the ball when everyone knew in the stadium the Cats were going to run the ball — and that served UK well in the final game of the season.

3. Now it’s on to next season.

The bad news is that both Snell and star outside linebacker Josh Allen (three sacks and a blocked field goal Tuesday) are both leaving for the NFL. Stoops’ defense will take a particularly hard hit, losing Allen, Mike Edwards, Derrick Baity, Jordan Jones, Darius West, Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry, among others.

The good news is that those seniors, and Snell as a junior, set good examples for the younger players on both sides of the ball. Players including Lynn Bowden, Terry Wilson, A.J. Rose, Chris Oats, Davonte Robinson and Deandre Square, to name a few.

Right now, however, Big Blue Nation will be happy to celebrate a 10-3 team that finished as Citrus Bowl Champions.

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