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Citrus Bowl Preview: Blue Cats Collide in Orlando

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If you don’t feel good about the spread, just take the under.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A Citrus Bowl victory would mean more for Kentucky than for Penn State. That’s something that many rambling, gambling fans will be thinking about as we get closer and closer to the New Year’s Day kickoff in Orlando. James Franklin has already proven himself as a capable head coach by leading Penn State to a Big Ten championship in 2016 and a Fiesta Bowl victory last year. On the other sideline, Mark Stoops has been battling for six years to prove that Kentucky belongs in a conversation with the other SEC heavyweights.

Finally, this autumn, the Cats broke through, snapped their losing streak against Florida and reached nine wins for the first time since 1984. Getting that 10th victory and knocking off another ranked opponent would be a huge selling point for a program that has been considered irrelevant on the national landscape for a very long time.

As far as motivation goes, you have to side with Kentucky on this one. Penn State has a lot to play for too, though. It will be Trace McSorley’s final game as quarterback, and while he hasn’t had the Heisman-worthy campaign that fans like me were foaming at the mouth for, he has only further endeared himself to the faithful by playing through a leg injury that limited him during the second half of the regular season. Sending off perhaps the best quarterback in Penn State history the right way might be enough of a motivating factor to counter what Kentucky has going on with its best campaign in forever.

Beyond being an emotional story, McSorley ought to be the key cog on the field Tuesday. He hasn’t thrown the ball well at all in 2018, but the wily senior still loves to take chances on big plays, and that’s just what Penn State is going to need in what figures to be a plodding game between two tough defenses. It’s a good thing that Camping World Stadium has replaced its grass field since the last time Penn State played there. Back on New Year’s Day in 2010, the Lions and LSU scrapped on a gridiron that had literally turned to mud by early in the second half.

Penn State has experience against opponents that like to run the ball and play defense this season — It defeated Iowa and Wisconsin, and also lost to Michigan State — but the Lions haven’t seen a defensive player quite like Kentucky’s Josh Allen. If I told you there was a terrifying linebacker from Montclair, New Jersey playing in this game, you’d be smart to guess that he was on the PSU side, but unfortunately Allen plays for Kentucky. Not only does he lead the Cats in tackles, but he has 14 sacks and five forced fumbles this season. In fact, there are only three games this year in which Allen hasn’t taken the quarterback down at least once.

The monster among men only needs to force one or two turnovers in Penn State territory to turn the Citrus Bowl in Kentucky’s favor. All other things being equal, the Lions have shown enough in run defense this year to slow down Benny Snell Jr., especially considering that quarterback Terry Wilson doesn’t do much to make the secondary back up. That’s why I think McSorley and his willingness to throw downfield will be the factor that puts Penn State over the top.

However, if Allen gets into the backfield one too many times, this could turn into the Michigan State game. The Spartans didn’t threaten much in that one, but Penn State never closed the door and ended up falling apart late. It’s tough to like the Lions in any close game given their inability to run out the clock and convert on third down, but if Tennessee can beat the Cats by three scores, so can Penn State.

Okay, I’m not that confident, but Kentucky hasn’t had a big win since September, and the way the team barely escaped against Missouri — a team that held Snell to 67 yards, by the way — doesn’t scare me too much. I’m expecting a third straight 10-win season for Franklin and a fun final game for McSorley.

Penn State 24, Kentucky 10