The 2018 Kentucky Wildcats finished their case to be known as the best team in program history with an outstanding performance in the 2019 Citrus Bowl, beating Penn State 27-24 to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1977. This year's team exceeded all expectations, reaching the top 10 in the weekly AP Top 25 poll and snapping multiple droughts and losing streaks along the way. Thanks to memorable performances from its two beloved stars, running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen, Kentucky also won its first bowl game since 2008.
Snell became the program's all-time leading rusher on a touchdown run in the second half that extended No. 14 Kentucky's lead over No. 12 Penn State to 27-7. He told ESPN's Laura Rutledge after the game that he knew he was 3-4 yards short of the mark, and he approached the coaches on the sideline to give him the opportunity. Once they gave the nod, Snell hit the field, powered up the middle on a 12-yard score and fell to his knees in the end zone.
"We just started from the beginning of the season. We came into the season as underdogs, and bond that we created as a team, it's a brotherhood, it's deeper than football. I'm proud of all my guys," Snell said. "We're legends. We're all legends in our own way, we're all special."
Snell finished the game with 144 rushing yards and two scores on 26 attempts, and when Kentucky needed to ice the game after Penn State charged back and cut the lead to three points in the fourth quarter, everyone in the stadium knew who was getting the ball.
Allen, who spent much of the time since the end of the regular season on the award circuit where he was widely recognized as the defensive player of the year, was also a superstar in this game. As we've seen so many other top NFL Draft picks sit the bowl season out, Allen's performance (three sacks, three tackles for loss and a blocked field goal) stands out as the rare example of a potential top-five pick not only playing but increasing the excitement for what he can bring to a franchise at the next level.
Here's three things to know about the 2019 Citrus Bowl.
1. The result is proof positive that committing to a coach can pay off: Fans and outsiders who doubted the direction of the football program under Mark Stoops have spent the entire season fitting their foot in their mouth, and the leaders at Kentucky deserve credit for being patient with the football program over the last seven seasons. The win total either maintained or increased every since year, peaking here in 2018 with the 10-3 season and the first bowl win in a decade.
But it's more than the wins. Stoops was given enough time to instill an identity within the program, one that highlights physicality on both sides of the ball and rides its defense to victory. Kentucky might be losing all-time greats in Snell and Allen, but their example has been established thanks to a school that valued continuity and giving the program room for growth.
2. Trace McSorley overcame injury to lead Penn State back from a 20-point deficit: Some reports initially had McSorley dealing with a broken foot, while others limited the extent of the injury, but it was apparent that the Nittany Lions' winningest quarterback was hobbled in the second half. But that didn't stop McSorley from leading three straight scoring drives in the fourth quarter and running up and down the sideline to fire up his teammates and the crowd.
Trace McSorley leading Penn State to a comeback win after being ruled "out" with a "broken foot" would be the most Trace McSorley thing ever.— Josh Moyer (@ByJoshMoyer) January 1, 2019
McSorley completed 17-of-33 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns with an interception and led the Nittany Lions in rushing with 75 yards and a score on 19 recorded attempts. Though making plays on the move has always been part of McSorley's game -- in this game he added the school record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback to his weighty presence in the program record books -- but he was running for his life most of the game because of Kentucky's elite defensive front.
3. James Franklin's decision to kick a field goal will leave Penn State fans frustrated: The Penn State crowd was loud after two four-quarter touchdown drives and McSorley was in a rhythm, but Franklin decided to kick a field goal instead of going for the conversion on fourth-and-7 from the 14-yard line with 4:12 remaining and the score at 27-21. Kentucky had been scoreless through the fourth quarter, and Penn State had three timeouts, but Snell went into takeover mode on the following drive and his first down runs bled the remaining time on the clock.
Now to be fair, Franklin and his staff also should receive credit for a great play call on a critical third down on the previous touchdown drive. The obvious passing situation had Allen and Kentucky's rushers teed up to chase down McSorley, but it was a handoff to Miles Sanders that went for more than 10 yards to extend the drive. And the decision to kick the field goal was far from the reason why Penn State didn't win in a game that had a field goal miss and another field goal blocked, not to mention the handfuls of other miscues.
Until McSorley went crazy in the fourth quarter, the story of the game was set to be a no-show performance from one of the winningest programs of the last three or four years.