Lions draw Kentucky in Citrus

It may not be the sexiest matchup of the bowl season, but there still will be many good story lines for Penn State’s Citrus Bowl showdown against Kentucky on New Year’s Day in Orlando.

Kentucky is obviously a basketball school, but the football team has had an excellent season, finishing 14th in the College Football Playoff rankings after going 9-3 with a road win at Florida (27-16) and dominant home victory over Mississippi State (28-7). Those opponents finished 10th and 18th, respectively, in the CFP rankings.

Kentucky also features one of the nation’s top running backs in Benny Snell, as well as a superb linebacker in Josh Allen, who’s projected to be a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

The Wildcats are coached by Mark Stoops, who took over the long-struggling program in 2013 and has slowly turned it into a challenger in the SEC East division. Kentucky’s only losses this year were at Texas A&M (20-14), at home to Georgia (34-17) and at Tennessee (24-7).

“We are very proud of this team and the work they have done and the coaching staff,” Stoops said Sunday. “To be able to represent our great university in a New Year’s Day game in Florida against Penn State … it means a lot.”

Penn State coach James Franklin hadn’t had much time to scout Kentucky or its terrific running game prior to speaking with the media about the matchup early Sunday evening.

“I’ve watched them on TV a few times,” Franklin said, “and obviously I know Coach Stoops quite well and I’ve got tremendous respect for him and that program.

“We got all their film in this afternoon, and the (graduate assistants) are already breaking it down. The coaches all have their laptops while they’re on the road recruiting so we can start watching tape on them.”

Franklin coached against Kentucky three times when he was at Vanderbilt from 2011-13 and went undefeated, with his team outscoring the Wildcats 100-14 in the contests (38-8, 40-0, 22-6).

Penn State (9-3) had hoped for a New Year’s Six bowl berth, and the Peach Bowl was a strong possibility throughout the process. But the way things played out in Saturday’s conference championship games prevented the Lions from getting a bid and sent them to the next-best situation in the Citrus Bowl.

From Penn State’s perspective, the game offers a chance for a 10th victory this season, which would mark three years in a row the Lions would finish with at least 10.

“When you can do something that’s never been done at Penn State before in the Big Ten era, I think that’s a pretty strong statement,” Franklin said. “We’ve played good football here for a really long time.

“There’s not a whole lot of teams in the country that have been able to do what we’ve been able to do consistently the last three years,” the coach added.

Along with going for a 10th win, the game gives record-setting senior quarterback Trace McSorley one final opportunity to showcase his leadership and talents in a PSU uniform. McSorley said getting a win “would be the cherry on top for my career.”

Snell, who’s 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, is an excellent runner who has rushed for 1,305 yards and 14 TDs this season while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. The Wildcats do not have a great passing game, as starting quarterback Terry Wilson has thrown for just 1,768 yards with 11 TDs and eight interceptions.

“Benny Snell’s a great plater, they’ve been dynamic all year,” McSorley, speaking to gopsusports.com, said of Kentucky.

“They’ve made a lot of noise this year that, it’s not something that people expected out of them. But they’ve got a ton of great playmakers, especially on the defensive side of the ball that can get after the passer, make plays in the running game and make life difficult for an offense.”

Allen leads Kentucky’s defense with 14 sacks, 18 ¢ tackles for loss and 84 tackles. He’s forced five fumbles, recovering two, and broken up four passes.

“It’s definitely going to be a tough challenge for us,” McSorley said.

Penn State last appeared in the Citrus Bowl at the end of the 2009 season (it was the Capital One Bowl then), when Daryll Clark led the Lions to a 19-17 win over LSU.

Penn State has not played Kentucky since the Outback Bowl to end the 1998 season, when it faced quarterback Tim Couch and won, 26-14. The Lions lead the all-time series, 3-2, having won in 1975 before losing in 1976 and ’77.

“I think it’s going to be a great game,” Franklin said. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge and a great opportunity, and I’m just looking forward to spending a little bit more time with this team, and specifically our senior players.”

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