Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Preview
Dec. 18, 2017

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No. 21 Northwestern
(9-3, 7-2 B1G) will take on Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 SEC) in the 20th Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday, Dec. 29. The "Battle of the Wildcats" will kick off at 5:30 p.m. ET at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., with the game televised on ESPN.

Northwestern enters the postseason riding a seven-game winning streak, having eclipsed the nine-win plateau for the ninth time in program history. The Wildcats are participating in their eighth bowl game in the last 10 seasons, and have won two of their last three. NU earned a 31-24 victory over No. 23 Pittsburgh in the 2016 NewEra Pinstripe Bowl at iconic Yankee Stadium, and a 34-20 triumph over Mississippi State in the 2013 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The Music City Bowl will be the 14th postseason game in program history, of which Pat Fitzgerald has played a role in 12 (two as a student-athlete, two as an assistant coach, eight as head coach).

Kentucky is making its 17th bowl appearance in program history, boasting an 8-8 record in the previous 16 trips. Fourth-year head coach Mark Stoops has guided the Wildcats to two consecutive postseason bids, having reached the TaxSlayer Bowl a season ago. This will mark UK's fifth appearance in the Music City Bowl, the most of any team in the history of the bowl. UK has a 2-2 record in the bowl, scoring memorable wins over Clemson and Florida State in 2006 and 2007. Kentucky, which went .500 in the SEC East in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1989-99, is looking to hit the eight-win mark for the first since 2009. However, the Wildcats enter the postseason without the same momentum Northwestern is carrying. UK has lost three of its last four and four of the last six. The Wildcats were outscored 86-30 in their last two games. UK has also dropped three straight bowls and not won since beating East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl following the 2008 season.

These programs have met just one other time, with Northwestern taking a 7-0 win in Evanston way back in 1928. Northwestern is set to meet an SEC team in a bowl game for the third time since 2012, while Kentucky last faced a Big Ten squad when it lost to Penn State in the Outback Bowl after the 1998 campaign.


 

 

QUICKIE
STATS

Scoring
Offense

Scoring Defense

Total Offense

Total Defense

Rushing Offense

Rushing Defense

Passing Offense

Passing Defense

Turnover Margin

NORTHWESTERN

29.7

19.8

405.2

358.8

160.9

111.3

244.3

247.6

+5

KENTUCKY

25.8

28.6

350.8

425.7

169.8

162.2

181.1

263.5

+5

Northwestern's offense ranks fourth in the Big Ten in total yards (405.2) and scoring (29.7), fifth in passing (244.3) and eighth in rushing (160.9). The Wildcats' red zone offense is second-best in the Big Ten at a 90.7-percent scoring clip, which is 21st nationally. The anchor of the NU offense is four-time All-Big Ten running back Justin Jackson, the program's record holder in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards. This season Jackson became just the second player in Big Ten history (Ron Dayne, Wisconsin) and ninth in FBS history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in four-straight seasons. His 1,154 rushing yards equates to 96.2 yards per game, which is third in the conference. Quarterback Clayton Thorson, who ranks third in the Big Ten with 234.1 passing yards per game, will have his eyes set on Flynn Nagel (47 catches for 483 yards) and Bennett Skowronek (42 for 619). Thorson is first in the league and 19th nationally with an average of 21.5 completions per game, and has 2,809 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions to his credit this season.

Kentucky's defense ranks eighth in the SEC against the run (162.2) and in scoring (28.6), 12th in total yards allowed (425.7), and 14th in defending the pass (263.5). The Wildcats' pass defense ranked 112th out of 129 teams nationally. However, junior safety Mike Edwards is tied for second in the SEC with four interceptions, and is the team's leading tackler with an average of 7.5 stops per game, good for ninth in the SEC. Edwards, who also owns a team-high six pass breakups, is on pace to be just the fourth player in school history to lead the team in both interceptions and tackles in the same season. Junior linebacker Jordan Jones sits 15th overall at 6.9 tackles per game, followed by teammate and senior linebacker Courtney Love in 16th at 6.8 stops each time out. Junior linebacker Josh Allen is tied for sixth in the SEC with 7.0 sacks on the season, while junior lineman Denzil Ware is 10th with 6.5 sacks. Allen also totaled a team-high four quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one interception. Ware has recorded a sack in six games this season, including three of the last five, and has two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries this season.

Kentucky's offense ranks seventh in the SEC in rushing (169.8), as well as 10th in passing (181.1), total yards (350.8) and scoring (25.8). Sophomore running back Benny Snell, Jr., finished the regular season second in the SEC and 23rd in the country with 1,318 rushing yards while leading the league with 18 touchdowns on the ground. The 18 touchdowns in 2017 set school records for both total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a single season, while he also became the first player in school history to record 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Snell, who just ran for a career-high 211 yards on 29 carries in the regular season finale against Louisville, is only the fifth player in SEC history to reach 2,400 career yards prior to his junior season. Senior Garrett Johnson leads the receiving corps with 500 yards on 46 catches and two touchdowns. UK lost standout C.J. Conrad to a season-ending foot injury on Nov. 18. The third-tem All-SEC wideout was second on the team in receiving yards with 286 yards on 16 catches, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. As a unit, UK ranks fifth nationally with just five interceptions allowed this year, is 19th with just 13 turnovers lost, and has been successful in the red zone with a scoring clip of 92.3 percent, which ranks 13th.

Defensively, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten (and ninth nationally) defending the rush (111.3), fifth in scoring (19.8), ninth in total yards allowed (358.8), and 14th against the pass (247.6). The Wildcats are also first in the Big Ten and sixth nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents on the board just 71.1 percent of the time. NU is second in the Big Ten with a plus-5 turnover margin, which has stemmed from 23 takeaways on the year, including 15 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Senior safety Kyle Queiro owns four of those 15 picks. Sophomore lineman Joe Gaziano owns a Big Ten-best eight sacks on the year and boasts 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, while junior linebacker Nate Hall ranks second in the league with 16.5 TFL. Redshirt first-year linebacker Paddy Fisher leads all FBS rookies with 110 tackles and 62 solo tackles, while ranking seventh in the country with four forced fumbles.

On special teams, Northwestern is 14th nationally in kickoff return defense (17.60), 21st in net punting (40.15), and 45th in punt return defense (6.00). Charlie Kuhbander is 15th nationally with an 85.7 field goal percentage and punter Hunter Niswander owns a 42.9 yard average that is 39th-best in the country. UK's Austin MacGinnis currently ranks seventh nationally and leads the SEC in field goals made with Auburn's Daniel Carlson (1.75 per game). UK's all-time leading scorer also leads the SEC in field goal percentage with Carlson (77.8). He also tied his own school record with 21 field goals this season and hit a school-record-tying 11 consecutive field goals this season. Matthew Panton is 42nd nationally with a 42.7 yards-per-punt average. Lynn Bowden Jr. is ninth nationally in combined kick return yardage (807) and 44th in average per return (23.1).