Written by Michael Hull
Orlando, FL – The Penn State Nittany Lions and the Kentucky Wildcats met in the 2019 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL. It was the first time the two teams had faced each other in 20 years, and was their sixth meeting all time. Kentucky was led to their most successful season in over 40 years by their running game, specifically Benny Snell, who was 12th in the country in yards with 1,305 this season, and their defense, as SEC defensive player of the year Josh Allen led the SEC with 14 sacks this season. As for the Nittany Lions, they were led by the arm and legs of NFL prospect quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw for 2,284 yards and also ran for 723 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was complemented by junior running back Miles Sanders, who finished the season second in the Big 10 in rushing with 1,223 yards.
Penn State won the coin toss and elected to receive. The Nittany Lions appeared to go three and out on their opening drive, but tried a fake punt that was snuffed out by the Wildcats, who took over in great field position. After getting the ball into the red zone, their drive stalled and Kentucky had to settle for a 28 yard field goal by Miles Butler to take an early 3-0 lead. PSU went three and out on their following drive as well, but this time they punted, and nailed the Wildcats all the way down at their own three yard line. Kentucky couldn’t do anything with the poor field position and punted the ball right back to McSorley and the Penn State offense. They quickly worked their way down the field, and converted a 4th and inches to move into the red zone. The drive quickly stalled due to a Josh Allen sack, and Penn State missed the 40 yard field goal attempt, keeping the score at 3-0. Kentucky couldn’t muster any kind of offense on the next drive, but put their defense in a great spot with a beautiful punt all the way down to the five of Penn State. The Kentucky defense forced yet another three and out, and Kentucky returner Lynn Bowden took the punt 58 yards for a Wildcat touchdown to give them a 10-0 lead. The score would stay that way the rest of the quarter.
Penn State wasted no time in the second quarter, as McSorley hit KJ Hamler on a screen pass that he took 46 yards down to the Kentucky one. On the very next play, McSorley hit Nick Bowers for the score to bring the Nittany Lions within three, as the score was now 10-7, Wildcats. The two teams then traded punts back and forth for almost the entire second quarter. McSorley briefly exited the game, but returned just one play later. Penn State was finally able to muster up some offense late in the quarter, getting into the red zone before having to settle for a 36 yard field goal. The kick was deflected at the line of scrimmage and missed, and Kentucky held on to their slim 10-7 lead for the half. Neither team threw for more than 100 yards in the first half, as the Nittany Lions threw for 95 and the Wildcats just 29. Penn State outgained Kentucky 176-87 in terms of total yards, but the Bowden punt return and stout defensive play was enough to keep the Wildcats in front.
Kentucky received the ball to start the second half. After the opening kickoff went out of bounds, the Wildcats went to work. After a big run by Snell and a targeting call, the Wildcats were quickly in scoring position. They were able to take advantage, as Benny Snell scored from two yards out to put Kentucky up 17-7. Penn State started the next drive with Sean Clifford at QB instead of McSorley. The Nittany Lions couldn’t get anything going on offense and were forced to punt. The Wildcats wasted no time in moving the ball downfield, and were able to get the ball to the Penn State four before stalling and settling for a field goal. With 3:48 to go in the third, the score was 20-7, Kentucky. McSorley returned on the following drive for Penn State, who threw an interception on a forced downfield pass. Kentucky took over and was immediately put into scoring position after a 57 yard catch and run by Bowden. Snell then took it up the middle for a 12 yard score to extend the Wildcat lead to 27-7 with 1:35 left in the third. The touchdown run made Snell the all time rushing leader for Kentucky. Penn State, in desperate need of points, drove down past midfield before the end of the third.
The Penn State drive continued into the fourth quarter, as their offense, that had been non-existent most of the game, finally started to wake up. McSorley scored on the keeper to cut into the lead and make it 27-14 with 13:37 remaining in the game. Kentucky punted the ball right back to the Nittany Lion offense. The revitalized PSU attack came out firing, quickly moving the ball down to the outskirts of the red zone. McSorley then hit tight end Pat Freiermuth for the 18 yard score to bring Penn State within a touchdown with nine minutes to go in the game. The Kentucky offense went three and out on the next drive and Penn State took over at their own 25, down by six, with less than eight minutes remaining. McSorley orchestrated a drive downfield, getting the ball to the Kentucky 30. PSU moved into the red zone after a big third down run by Miles Sanders. Penn State had a decision to make on fourth down, however, and settled for a field goal to cut the lead to three, hoping to stop Kentucky and get the ball back with time to try and win the game. They did, but with just one second left after game MVP Benny Snell converted two huge first down runs. Penn State was unable to pull off a miracle play and Kentucky ended up winning 27-24.
MVP running back Benny Snell finished with 144 yards and two touchdowns off of 26 carries. After the game, he spoke about the adversity his team had gone through this year.
“With the brotherhood that we created, to overcome the negative things that happened with the team, we turned those into positives…those things gave us that extra fight throughout the season [gave us] something to play for,” Snell said. “We set the record straight.”
Potential top five pick Josh Allen finished the game with three sacks. The SEC defensive player of the year was not shy of confidence after the game either.
“If I don’t go number one, I don’t know who is,” Allen said.
Kentucky’s victory in Orlando means that they will end the season at 10-3. This is the first time that they have gone for double digit wins in over 40 years.