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Football: Scouting Northwestern’s Music City Bowl opponent, Kentucky

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Football: Scouting Northwestern’s Music City Bowl opponent, Kentucky

Kentucky running back Benny Snell lunges forward during a game against Georgia in the 2016 season. Snell will be the top threat on Kentucky’s offense in Friday’s bowl game against Northwestern.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell lunges forward during a game against Georgia in the 2016 season. Snell will be the top threat on Kentucky’s offense in Friday’s bowl game against Northwestern.

Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS

Kentucky running back Benny Snell lunges forward during a game against Georgia in the 2016 season. Snell will be the top threat on Kentucky’s offense in Friday’s bowl game against Northwestern.

Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS

Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS

Kentucky running back Benny Snell lunges forward during a game against Georgia in the 2016 season. Snell will be the top threat on Kentucky’s offense in Friday’s bowl game against Northwestern.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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Halfway through the regular season, the blue Wildcats of Kentucky seemed on pace for one of the school’s best football years in recent memory.

Kentucky was 5-1 — and had led Florida by 13 points in the fourth quarter of its lone loss — and had a schedule in the extraordinarily weak SEC East division in front of it. The traditionally basketball-dominated school had a very real shot at its first double-digit-win season since 1977.

But then the blue Wildcats proceeded to lose four of their last six games, including their final two (against Georgia and rival Louisville) by a combined 56 points, to finish the regular season an unremarkable 7-5 and enter Friday’s Music City Bowl against Northwestern as 7.5-point underdogs.

Despite the underwhelming November, Kentucky enters this week’s contest with arguably the game’s most dangerous weapon in running back Benny Snell, who tied for fifth in the nation with 18 touchdowns while running for 1,318 yards this year.

Snell is in many ways comparable to NU’s Justin Jackson: he’s on track to rush for 1,000-plus yards in all four seasons of college, he’s just 5-foot-11 but has a knack for grinding out yards in the interior and he was a workhorse for Kentucky, ranking 10th in the country in total carries (Jackson was 11th).

“You see his toughness and his will on a lot of runs where he’s running through contact, and then has the ability to make you miss and go the distance,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s an outstanding player, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s going to be a huge challenge for our defense.”

Kentucky’s passing offense is far less dynamic, but quarterback Stephen Johnson is pretty mobile and did well protecting the football this fall, throwing only four interceptions. Receiver Garrett Johnson is his favorite target, tallying more than twice as many receptions as anyone else on the roster, and both will be playing their final collegiate games Friday.

Defensively, safety Mike Edwards led the team in tackles while also hauling in four picks, and linebacker Josh Allen and defensive end Denzil Ware are two formidable pass rushers with at least 6.5 sacks each.

An area to watch in particular will be the red zone. Both NU and Kentucky are among the top 20 offenses in the country in red zone efficiency, converting at a better than 90 percent clip, but are polar opposites in red zone defense: NU is seventh in that regard, while Kentucky is 122nd.

Although a nine-win season is out of the question, Kentucky will still be playing for its first bowl win since 2008 — having lost three straight since, most recently versus Georgia Tech in last season’s Taxslayer Bowl — and its first eight-win season since 2007.

With the crowd in Nashville likely to favor the team from Lexington over the one from Evanston, and Kentucky boasting the talent that nearly — but not quite — carried the program to unprecedented heights this fall, NU can’t afford to take its underdog opponent lightly.

Tim Balk contributed reporting.

Email: benjaminpope2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @benpope111

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