Stoops says Cats will have their hands full against Northwestern in Music City Bowl

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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, left, and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, right, pose in front of the Music City Bowl trophy Thursday in Nashville. (Keith Taylor/Kentucky Today)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky and Northwestern haven’t played in decades. That will change when the two teams meet in the Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl set for Friday at Nissan Stadium.

Despite the fact the two foes haven’t met on the gridiron since 1928, both set of Wildcats are somewhat similar, considering both teams rely on the running attack to wear down opponents. Northwestern, which won their last seven games and finished at 9-3, will be led by senior Justin Jackson, the school’s all-time rushing leader with 5,283 career yards. Jackson ran for 1,154 yards this season, putting an exclamation point on his career with the Wildcats.

“He’s a real challenge,” Stoops said Thursday. “He’s just a complete running back, does things right. He’s explosive. He gets tough yards. He gets explosive yards. (You) got your hands full (with him).”

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t looking forward to Jackson’s last game with the team.

“He’s irreplaceable,” Fitzgerald said. “Once-in-a-coaching-lifetime young man. I know Saturday night I’ll be asked, How are you going to replace Justin Jackson? You’re not. That just doesn’t happen. Someone is going to have to step up and make their mark after he’s gone. It’s an honor, a privilege. He’s a dual major. He’s just the full package. He’s a special young man.”

Northwestern’s biggest task will be containing Kentucky running back Benny Snell, who possess the same skills as its own running back.

“He’s an outstanding running back,” Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. “What adds to it is the quarterback Stephen Johnson, his ability to run. They do some great things with unique formations, putting him in the wildcat, Benny in the wildcat. We have tremendous respect for them. It’s going to be a great challenge. We have seen some good running backs in the Big Ten. But every offense is a little different, gives unique problems. Kentucky gives us some unique things that we’ve had to deal with. Our players, they know it’s going to be a tremendous challenge to keep him under control.”

Stoops said last year’s 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech, along with back-to-back setbacks to Georgia and Louisville respectively to end the regular season have served as a motivation for the Wildcats ahead of the team’s second straight postseason appearance.

“We’re here to compete. Pat and I both feel, and our teams feel, as you get closer to game time, that focus, that intensity level certainly kicks up, you’re ready to get out there and play football,” Stoops said. “For the past month, it’s been a lot of fun to work on the practice field with these guys, but more importantly to spend time off the field, continue to build your team, push the program in the direction you want it to go. So it’s been a lot of fun.”

Apples and oranges

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Kentucky’s bowl preparation has been different this season, compared to last year when the Wildcats lost to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Tampa.

“One thing coach Stoops does a great job of, he talks to a lot of different staffs,” Gran said. “As you go through these bowl games, there’s different ways you can slice that orange.He did change it up this year. Our kids, the energy is unbelievable. It’s been a lot of fun. But they’re getting their work done. It’s been hardhat, lunch pail when we go to work, fun when you’re allowed to have fun. It’s been a whole lot different than last year. It’s been exciting.”

Defensive coordinator Matt House agreed and said the tempo was upbeat during practice times leading up to Friday’s contest.

“Coach has really done a good job with setting the tempo for our team,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House said. “I think we practiced fast. We’ve had a good balance of competitive good versus good situations, then situations where you’re against scouts so it doesn’t get monotonous for the players.”

Stoops added it will be “nice” to play a team that uses more of a “conventional” offensive attack, compared to last year when the Wildcats faced Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.

“The challenge will be very similar, two very good football teams,” he said. “Again, we have great respect for Northwestern. They’re coached very well. They’re not going to beat themselves. You have to beat them. Their players play exceptionally hard. So we’ll have to definitely be on point.”

Mutual respect

Stoops and Fitzgerald will be rivals Friday, but will the two coaches will return to friendship mode once the contest ends. Stoops reached out to Fitzgerald regarding bowl preparation and the Northwestern coach didn’t think twice about offering an opinion regarding postseason preparation.

“When we sit in the corner office, it’s a pretty cool place to be, but it’s pretty lonely,” Fitzgerald said. “When you start to try to develop your own leadership style, the way you’re going to run your program, very few guys are willing to share over the phone or at national conventions. When you get into a bowl week, absolutely I’m going to reach out. This is a great opportunity for me to start a relationship and grow and get better. I’m going to be a huge Cat fan moving forward. That’s the great thing.”

Stoops agreed.

“He was very gracious,” Stoops said. “He really helped me. Here we are about to compete against each other tomorrow. But that’s the type of person he is. Then we have a chance through this week to talk about many other things.”

Gametracker: Music City Bowl, Friday, 4:30 p.m., Friday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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