When: Fri. Dec. 29, 2017; 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT
Where: Nashville, Tenn.; Nissan Stadium (69,143)
All-Time Series: Northwestern leads 1-0
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 7-0 (Oct. 20, 1928)
Line: Northwestern (-7.5)
The journey of a season is often winding and hard to predict or measure. Even if a team ends up exactly where just about everyone protected them to be.
The Northwestern Wildcats entered the season with big expectations to win the Big Ten West Division. By Week Five, the team was seemingly out of that division race, having lost games to conference favorites Wisconsin and Penn State in the first two Big Ten games. The team sat at 2-3 and looked lifeless offensively and anemic, at best, defensively. The Wildcats did not seem like they would accomplish any of their goals and the push for a bowl game would be tough.
This felt like a wasted season. A year where the Wildcats gave up the opportunity to have a special season with a veteran-laden class, featuring the senior year of its best running back of all time.
The light switch for Northwestern came on. They became the team everyone imagined they could be, swarming the ball on defense and establishing that devastating ground game on defense.
In pure Northwestern fashion, the team won three straight overtime games and their final seven games of the regular season. The Wildcats reached nine wins for the second time in three seasons and could have their second 10-win season in that span too with a bowl win.
Northwestern ended up where everyone expected them to be at the beginning of the season. How they got there was just a bit more roundabout — and perhaps a bit disappointing considering the slow start.
Kentucky can probably say the same thing in getting to a 7-5, 4-4 record in the SEC. The Wildcats got out to a 4-1 start, the only defeat a one-point loss to Florida that came in somewhat embarrassing fashion as the team forgot to line up a cornerback to defend a receiver on the game-winning throw. Failing to get the first win over Florida in 30 years was a real blemish in the early season.
But Kentucky then became the team everyone expected. The Wildcats were unable to maintain the momentum and could not score wins agianst the bigger teams in the SEC to keep up. The Wildcats got stomped in their remaining road games and could not maintain their momentum.
A season that started off with a lot of promise ended in ultimate. . . expectation, at least. Back-t0-back bowl games is a big accomplishment for Kentucky for sure. That is not something this program does often.
And so these two teams thought they were going to have much different seasons when the year finally got going. They ended up perhaps right where everyone thought they would at the end.
Battle of the Backs
The key matchup in this game will come with the running backs. Both Northwestern and Kentucky have established running backs who can put up a ton of yards. Their offenses revolve around their running backs. And the ultimate success of either team to move the ball.
Justin Jackson rushed for 1,154 yards this year with nine touchdowns. He averaged 96.2 yards per game, eventually eclipsing Northwestern’s all-time rushing record. He averaged 21.3 carries per game.
Kentucky running back Benny Snell is no pushover either. He rushed for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns this year — 109.8 rushing yards per game. He averaged 21.3 attempts per game.
Both teams will look to their running backs to lead the way in this game. That will put the pressure on the defensive lines.
And here Northwestern has an advantage.
The Wildcats gave up just 111.2 total rushing yards per game. They put in strong defensive performances against star running backs like Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin and Saquon Barkley from Penn State. This is a big defensive line that has good gap discipline and stops the run effectively.
This is the central matchup of the entire game. If Northwestern is able to shut down or slow Snell, the team has a big advantage.
Protecting the ball
The big wild card in this game is at quarterback for both teams. But the focus should remain on Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson.
He finished the season strong and was a big reason for the team’s surge at the end of the season. But he is also mistake prone and will try to make throws into tight windows. Whether Kentucky is able to take advantage of those bad throws will be the big question for the game.
Thorson, when he is on, is a tough quarterback to stop. Wide receivers began to emerge late in the year and Thorson was able to get it to them. Establishing Jackson first opens things up for Thorson. But the difference between a pedestrian offensive performance and a potential runaway performance is often on Thorson’s shoulders — get ready for that in 2018.
He threw for 2,809 yards and 15 touchdowns. But those 12 interceptions loom large.
Kentucky made just 11 interceptions all year. So their secondary was not exactly a ball hawk and one that will create a ton of mistakes. Still, Thorson has been susceptible to those turnovers and mistakes. And they could be the difference. Kentucky has to be opportunistic to win this game. Thorson cannot give them the chance.
Missing Denzil Ware
Kentucky received a late blow with the suspension of linebacker Denzil Ware. For sure, that will hurt Kentucky’s run defense against Justin Jackson and the team’s defense overall in a game where there is not a lot of margin for error for the Wildcats.
Ware had 47 tackles and 6.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for a loss. With Northwestern’s sometimes shaky offensive line, his pressure from the linebacker position could have potentially caused a lot of chaos for the team. It could have been something that would help tip the game in Kentucky’s favor — or at least slow Northwestern’s offense down enough.
The Kentucky Wildcats will have to adjust and find someone to fill the gap. That could be a big ask. They gave up big running games to star backs from Georgia and Louisville in the last few weeks of the season. And being down this key player will only make matters worse.
Focus now turns to Josh Allen to create that pressure. He led the team in sacks and tackles ofr a loss this year. But without that secondary pass rusher, it could be a more difficult task for Kentucky to break through Northwestern’s line.