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Northwestern should claim their 10th win at the Music City Bowl

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Who are we? The Wildcats! Who are we going to beat? The Wildcats!

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After being jumped by the Michigan Wolverines for the Outback Bowl and msising a trip to San Diego by virtue of the Michigan State Spartans having a ton more fans than them, the Northwestern Wildcats take a quick trip down I-65 for their first-ever appearance in the Glen Mason Memorial Music City Bowl. LincolnParkWildcat and I, under threat of death from Graham, have rigged up a little preview of Northwestern’s titillating matchup with—

—oh fuck, it’s an SEC school?

Come on, we’re still smarting from the Tennessee ass-beating in Tampa. Do you have, like, a Mississippi State-ish SEC team? One that, during the season of their wildest dreams, still couldn’t beat a rival or snap some comically long skid? Is maybe even a basketball school?

That’d be swell. Thanks.

The Vitals

What: Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Who: Northwestern Wildcats 9–3 (7–2 Big Ten) vs Kentucky Wildcats 7–5 (4–4 SEC)

When: December 29 | 3:30pm | ESPN

Where: Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Tennessee Titans.

Other Stuff: NU leads series, 1-0 | NU -7 | O/U 51.5

How Northwestern Got Here:

Northwestern, sitting at 2-3 on October 14th with an inexplicable loss to Duke and tough losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, rallied to win the next 7 games and finished second place in the B1G West.

How Kentucky Got Here:

Kentucky went 3-1 in noncon (with a loss to Louisville) and had SEC victories over South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, with losses to Florida, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Georgia.

When Northwestern has the ball:

LPW: NU QB Clayton Thorson needs to connect to Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel while avoiding stud Kentucky safety and #2 on the SEC interceptions list Mike Edwards. NU RB Justin Jackson needs to overpower Kentucky linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware. Kentucky also has a good pass rush, so Northwestern’s O-line needs to be on point.

MNW: Intellectually I knew that Northwestern had a slow, plodding offense, but that didn’t remotely register with me until I put together those stats charts. Woof, we really did watch a lot of run-run-pass-puntonlynotreallybecausewegotafirstdown.

Northwestern is poised to—and I’m very hesitant to say this because we know what happens then—control the trenches against the UK rush defense, which ranks in the 100s on standard downs. The Purple ‘Cats offense is predicated on ball control and running Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier over and over and over again, and Kentucky was prone to getting beat on the edges a few times. LPW’s brought up Allen and Ware so I don’t have to, which is good because that’s the only part of Kentucky’s defense that scares me.

Assuming Kentucky doesn’t do something stupid like forget to cover a wide receiver (twice), I expect this to be a pretty mediocre passing day all around, unless Thorson opts for a lot of paper-cut slants (which I would expect the Blue ‘Cats to yield.

tl;dr: Slow, plodding death marches.

Advantage: Purple ‘Cats

When Kentucky has the ball:

LPW: Kentucky will try to overcome Northwestern’s strong defense behind the rushing of Benny Snell, who had a great year averaging 110 yards a game for 1,318 yards and 18 Touchdowns. QB Stephen Johnson is a threat to run the ball as well. Paddy Fisher, Nate Hall and Joe Gaziano probably have their work cut out for them.

MNW: Holy shit, 18 touchdowns? Really? That’s actually very impressive and moderately concerning. (But I’m actually not terribly worried about the rushing defense. Snell is good, but so are Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Akrum Wadley. And the Purple ‘Cats handled them fine this year.)

But the real cause for concern is Kentucky’s size at the wide receiver position. The speed Garrett Johnson brings to the table is one thing (he’s targeted on almost a quarter of Kentucky’s passes), but the size of Tavin Richardson (6’3”, 214#) and pass-catching TE C.J. Conrad (6’5”, 245#) could give the Northwestern secondary fits. Kentucky’s fond of running fades in the red zone especially, and Richardson is a prime target. His peripheral numbers (6.7 yards per target, 52.7% catch rate) aren’t ideal, but he’s the thunder to Johnson’s lightning, and in tight spots I have a bad feeling we’ll see him out-jump a Northwestern DB.

On the whole there’s not a ton concerning about the Kentucky offense, which has been a pretty pedestrian unit and is a little fumble-prone. But if and when Northwestern stuffs the run, I’ll be very curious to see if they can slow down the Kentucky passing game.

tl;dr: If Kentucky passes well, Northwestern’s in trouble.

Advantage: Push.

Special Teams

MNW: Matt Panton and Hunter Niswander are about equals in the punting department, with slightly above-average numbers and good FC/I20 ratios. Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis has a lot more leash (and potentially range) than Northwestern freshman Charlie Kuhbander, who is frequently on the sidelines as Pat Fitzgerald goes for it on 4th and 7 from the 25.

I was really confused as to why Kentucky has such a good punt success rate. Turns out that they’ve only returned 6 punts all year, but Charles Walker is averaging 17.2 ypr on those returns. So that answers that. Northwestern’s fine in punt coverage, and I don’t expect to see anything big ripped off in special teams (how’s that for a jinx).

Advantage: Kentucky because they’d actually attempt a long FG.

BANDS!

As this is a Big Ten blog, you guys have a little more familiarity with Northwestern, so I’m going to take a quick peek at Kentucky. I’m sure our de facto marching band expert, GTom, can swing by and really do a deep dive into the University of Kentucky Wildcat Marching Band.

Their pregame opens with a pretty basic block walk-on from both sidelines. It’s not terribly high-energy, but the little fanfare with revolving lines is a decent visual sight. After the downfield march , though, we get into the good shit: REALLY BIG LETTERS.

Actually, I’m not all that wild about it, because if that is the UK Fight Song they’re playing as they march down the field in the block K, no one seems to care all that much, which is a bummer, because it’s a fun little fight song with a nice line in the low brass.

It gets a lot better when they form the outline of Kentucky, though, and the fans appear to really get into it, too. That’s followed by singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the UK Band does an excellent rendition of it, as well, followed by a fanfare version as they move from the state outline into—

—oh God, no. Please no.

They’re gonna spell a four-letter word.

C-A-T-S.

And then they spell it again.

And again.

Yet again, but faster this time!

God I hate the South.

Kentucky’s Sound of the Wildcats looks undersized (250 students) compared to the SEC bands I’m used to seeing, but that allows them to do more of the fun stuff—making a dollar bill, oddly—that large, blocky bands do less often. (That makes it all the more disappointing when they do a full park-and-bark.)

I think the musicianship drops off a bit in this halftime show, but “That’s What I Like” is not one you should attempt unless you’ve got trumpets you really trust to go up after Bruno Mars’ ball-busting high notes.

I’m hoping Kentucky reprises something Kentucky-specific or bluegrassy for their halftime show, because that seems like when their musicianship shines through. (They also opened a show featuring their trombone section, which will surely be to the delight of you slide freaks.)

Things to Do in Nashville!

I enjoy opening this part up to all of you in general, because one thing we certainly have at OTE is a decent diversity of experiences. What are the things you think we need to do in Nashville?

In the past I’ve enjoyed hot chicken at Hattie B’s, done brewery stops at Blackstone, Smith & Lentz, and Fat Bottom, and gone hiking down in Belle Meade Plantation, but I need more. Burgers at the Pharmacy! Go be bougie as shit in Five Points! Jam to all styles of country on Broadway! I’ve done them and plan to do them again when I drive down for this one, but share your hot Nashville tips in the comments.

Prediction

LPW: Justin Jackson rushes for over 100 yards and eats up the clock to keep Kentucky’s offense off the field. Northwestern 21, Kentucky 14.

MNW: Yeah, LPW’s hit the nail on the head with the Northwestern gameplan. I actually like Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson to find a little room underneath in the Kentucky secondary, and Bennet Skowronek’s gonna cap off a great season with another TD. Northwestern, 28-21.

Poll

Which Wildcat wins?

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  • 88%
    Purple
    (132 votes)
  • 11%
    Blue
    (17 votes)
149 votes total Vote Now