The last time these two schools met on the gridiron was 20 years ago in the 1999 Outback Bowl. At that time, the two programs couldn’t have been more different. Kentucky behind a young hotshot head coach, had an NFL quarterback in a scheme that was going to set the college football world on fire for the next two decades. Penn State, with a hall of fame head coach, had a squad built on defense and ball control offense. The Nittany Lions had two future top five picks in their front seven and were looking for a 9-win season for the sixth consecutive season.
Now two decades later, these two programs have more in common than you would think. Both hired young and promising head coaches who needed to change the culture. There are future NFL running backs on each side with dual-threat quarterbacks playing big roles. On New Year’s Day, these two squads will clash in what should be a very fair fight.
When Mark Stoops took the job in Lexington, he was faced with a daunting challenge. The Wildcats had one of the worst roster situations in the Power Five that took multiple solid recruiting classes to climb out of. Stoops and his staff had to create a winning culture and that took some time teamed up with some serious growing pains. The young head coach was forced to make some adjustments to his coaching philosophy, but at the end of year six the ceiling for this program is nearly as high as it has ever been.
In State College, James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State following the surprise move of Bill O’Brien to the NFL. After O’Brien collected 15 wins under major scrutiny, the expectations were high for Franklin who led the Commodores to two top 25 finishes. After two seasons of setting the culture, the Nittany Lions won just 14 games with a 6-10 in the Big Ten. Franklin had to set the culture first, but hiring Joe Moorhead helped.
With some changes to the offensive scheme, Penn State exploded for 31 wins the next three seasons highlighted by a conference title and Rose Bowl appearance in 2016. The Nittany Lions are starting to see results on the recruiting trail now by reeling in consecutive top 10 classes.
In Lexington, Mark Stoops and Kentucky have traveled a similar path. After the year zero in 2013, The Wildcats went just 10-14 in their next two seasons. UK was struggling to find an offensive identity and partnered with a slow build on defense caused some major concerns. After multiple staff changes following the 2015 season, Kentucky has won 23 games and is 13-11 in the SEC with three consecutive bowl appearances.
In took each some time, but now it’s hard to say that both head coaches have not exceeded expectations.
When James Franklin arrived at Penn State, he inherited what many believed was a program changer behind center. Christian Hackenberg was a can’t miss five-star prospect out of high school. After an impressive freshman campaign under Bill O’Brien expectations were high for the new regime.
However, the next two seasons saw the Nittany Lions barely put up three touchdowns per game. The offense struggled and a change had to be made. It was hard for anyone to imagine that former Vanderbilt commit Trace McSorley would turn into one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history.
After three seasons, McSorley leads the program in career passing yards and touchdowns, but this year without Joe Moorhead and Saquaon Barkley it has been a little different. McSorley is only completing 53.4 percent of his attempts and has just 16 touchdowns after tossing for at least 28 in his first two seasons. Where he has done most of his damage is on the ground.
The Virginia native has rushed for career high 723 yards (855 if you take out sacks) for 11 touchdowns. Penn State’s pass game has struggled, but their offense has still been able to put up numbers due to the dynamic element provided by the quarterback run game.
At Kentucky, the most success Mark Stoops has had calling the shots has been with a quarterback who could be a legit rushing threat. Stephen Johnson was serviceable in this role, but there is no question that the legs of Terry Wilson have been an upgrade.
The sophomore has ran for over 500 yards (683 if you take out sacks) for four scores. He’s been Kentucky’s second best run threat and has had some highlight plays throughout the season. He still has a very long way to go as a passer, but the run element he’s brought has allowed this group to tread water during rough stretches. Without his rushing ability, Kentucky likely still has that long losing streak to Florida.
Josh Allen turned down the NFL Draft last season and returned for his senior season in Lexington. The senior outside linebacker was viewed as a top-100 draft prospect entering the season. Following 84 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 21 run stuffs, 4 pass break-ups, and 5 forced fumbles he is now a household name.
After bringing home nearly every trophy imaginable, it would be a shock if the lightly recruited pass rusher from New Jersey is not a top 10 pick. However, Penn State has a guy off the edge that was nearly matched the production of Josh Allen.
After being used in primarily a backup role as a true freshman, Yetur Gross-Matos was a bonafide star in his sophomore season. The All-Big Ten selection recorded 59 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 26.5 run stuffs, and two forced fumbles.
By the looks of him, Gross-Matos would jump out to you as a pass rusher due to his length but the former top-200 recruit has been an absolute force against the run. For a Penn State front that has struggled with run fits, the havoc caused by the Virginia native is much needed.
Josh Allen will get all of the draft hype during the game broadcast, but don’t be surprised if this time next season Yetur Gross-Matos is being talked about as a potential difference maker in the NFL.
After rushing for over 1,ooo yards in each of his first two seasons at UK, expectations were sky high for Benny Snell. The Big Blue Nation knew he was a superstar, but the rest of the country finally found out in September. After monster performances against both Florida and Mississippi State, the former three-star back found himself in the national spotlight for weeks.
Snell only needs just 107 yards in the Citrus Bowl to become the program’s all-time leading rusher. If he gets four touchdowns he’ll finish second in the SEC in career touchdowns. He’s had a historic career in Lexington and next year UK will have to replace a legend. Penn State had to do that this year.
Saquon Barkley is second all-time in rushing yards at Penn State and has the most rushing touchdowns in program history. He was a legit Heisman candidate last fall and was nearly the top pick in the last NFL Draft. He may win Rookie of the Year for the New York Giants this season. He was a rockstar.
Even though they’ve recruited very well, there’s always a concern about replacing production of an all-time great. Miles Sanders stepped up to the challenge this season.
The Pittsburgh native was a five-star prospect coming out of high school so this season should not come as a surprise. After being very productive in a very small sample size his first two years on campus, he emerged into a star this season.
The junior finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,223). He ran for nine touchdowns and averaged just under six yards per carry. He provided a nice balance of explosiveness, efficiency, and pass catching ability. He is an NFL running back.
Both teams want to pound the rock. The individual battle between Sanders and Snell could tell the tale. Whichever team is more productive on the ground will win the football game.
These two teams really do have a lot in common. Penn State leans more 0n recruiting star power while UK is heavy on player development, but other than that the two programs are strikingly similar. Each coach has had to make adjustments and in doing so they’ve found some great success. Both teams primary strength lies in the defense and running game. Whoever establishes the run on offense and stops the run on defense will have the heavy advantage.
Be ready for some big boy football to be played in Orlando.