A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Citrus Bowl Preview: Penn State not suprised by Cats’ recent success; game Tuesday at 1 p.m.

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

ORLANDO — James Franklin remembers when Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky more than six years ago. Franklin, the coach at Vanderbilt at the time, knew it would be a matter of time before the Wildcats would climb the ladder in the Southeastern Conference.
 
“We kind of live in a society, and specifically when it comes to college football, that everybody wants a quick fix. It doesn’t work like that,” said Franklin who went 3-0 against the Wildcats as coach of the Commodores. “And, you know, coach needed time to come in and get his philosophy in place and his program in place, and for all of us, that takes time — that takes a number of years. And that’s what you see right now. You see a football program that has taken on his identity. They’re tough. They’re hard-nosed. They play really hard. They play together.”

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and Penn State’s James Franklin at a press conference Monday at Rosen Plaza in Orlando. (Photo by Keith Taylor/Kentucky Today)

For the first time in 20 years and only the second time in school history, the Wildcats (9-3) will spend New Year’s Day on the gridiron and will take on Penn State (9-3) in the Citrus Bowl at 1 p.m. Tuesday. For the past week, Kentucky has been preparing for the showdown in the Sunshine State, mixing business with a dose of pleasure. Because of his team’s leadership, Stoops said the Wildcats have handled both well.
 
“The nice thing about our team is we have a lot of seniors (and) we have very good leadership,” he said. “I felt good. I felt comfortable with the balance all week. I feel like the guys, when it’s time to come in and lock in at meetings and go to practice, they’ve done a really good job. We have been very energized at practice.”
 
As for motivation, Stoops said finding a reason to be excited shouldn’t be an issue for his squad, seeking a first 10-win season since 1977, an opportunity that’s been more four decades in the making. The Wildcats defeated Penn State 24-20 at Happy Valley in 1977 and also defeated the Nittany Lions the previous season in Lexington.
 
“Playing Penn State and playing for 10 victories, playing on January 1, you know, that’s motivating enough,” he said. “I (feel) good about the balance of our players. We talked about it (Sunday), about flipping that switch and getting locked in and getting ready to go. So, you know, it’s still a challenge. 
 
“Guys have quite a few people start rolling into town, and family and friends, for them, start coming around — that’s good. We want them to spend time with their families. But you get two, three days out from the game, it’s time to start honing in and getting ready to go.”
 
The Nittany Lions will be looking for their 10th victory for the third straight season, a feat that hasn’t happened since Penn State joined the Big 10. 
 
“I think it’s a benchmark,” Franklin said. “You probably have two different benchmarks for programs across the country. Some programs are benchmarked on going to bowl games and that’s kind of the first level, and then I think the next level is 10-win seasons.”
 
Kentucky’s biggest task will be stopping Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who has thrown for nearly 10,000 yards and 75 touchdowns during his career. He also has rushed for 1,182 yards and 29 scores in his career. McSorely has five different receivers who have made at least 21 catches this season. 
 
“You see a great football player but you see the characteristics — you see the toughness, the leadership, everything runs through him,” Stoops said. “He wants the team on his back. And you know got to have great respect for a player like that. You could just see it with the way he plays with the attitude, the toughness, and makes plays across the board, so just an awful lot of respect for him.”
 
Franklin has equal admiration for Kentucky’s defense, anchored by Josh Allen,  player Franklin and other college coaches missed out on during the recruiting process.
 
“They scheme really well to put him in position to make plays, which is obviously what you need to do, and he’s able to impact the game in a lot of different ways, whether it’s sacks, whether it’s tackles for loss, whether its coverage,” he said. “It’s impressive, it really is. Obviously, we’re going to have to try to do things to try to limit his impact. That’s really what we do in every game.”
 
The Penn State coach also recruited Benny Snell and Lynn Bowden and said Bowden will be one of the keys to the game. 
 
“Lynn Bowden is another guy that concerns you,” he said. “Obviously the running back Snell concerns you … what are we going to do to make sure that Lynn Bowden doesn’t impact the game and be what we call a game-wrecker? Obviously, these guys are going to make plays in the game, but we’ve got to limit their impact as much as we possibly can through having an awareness of where they’re at all the time on the field and then doing some things scheme-wise that we think puts them in challenging positions.”
 
In an effort to get his team ready for game week, Franklin tweets out the team name over and over and over. This week he’s tweeted Kentucky numerous times and asked Stoops if he could “ask the Big Blue Nation to kind of leave me alone on twitter because they have been brutal.”
 
“Absolutely not,” Stoops said with a smile. “We need to be hostile and ready to go.”
 
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.
 
 

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