Tuesday, January 1, 1 p.m. ET (ABC)
Camping World Stadium, Orlando
Free NCAAF Pick: Nittany Lions ATS
Best Line Offered: Heritage
Kentucky is fading again under coach Mark Stoops. Since 2014, his Wildcats are 6-14 ATS in November. In two bowl games, they’re 0-2 SU and 1-1 ATS. The one cover came against Northwestern, which lost its starting quarterback to injury and still heavily out-gained Kentucky thanks to its rush attack. Conversely, Penn State under coach James Franklin is 3-0-1 ATS in bowls. Senior quarterback Trace McSorley will look to finish on top.
How They Got Here
Kentucky started with double-digit wins, as double-digit dogs, at Florida and versus Mississippi State. They finished by failing to cover five of their last seven games and failing to reach 20 points against their last five SEC opponents.
Penn State introduced a lot of youth (19 first-year starters) on offense and defense and nearly lost its opener against App State. Poor game management by Franklin cost them against Ohio State, they were upset at home by injury-ravaged Michigan State, and got blown out at Michigan. But PSU won its final three games by combined 60-20.
Why Kentucky Can Win/Cover
Kentucky will have the two best players in this game, Benny Snell on offense and Josh Allen on defense. Snell has accrued 1,305 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5 YPC. Snell makes up for a lack of breakaway speed with very quick feet inside running lanes. He is a smash-mouth runner who uses his elusiveness and physicality to repeatedly turn short gains into long gains. Smash-mouth runners have succeeded against Penn State. Michigan’s Karan Higdon ran for 132 yards on 6.6 YPC (1.3 higher than his season average). Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor ran for 185 yards on 9.3 YPC, which is 2.1 higher than his season average. On defense, Allen leads Kentucky with 84 tackles and 14 sacks. Penn State will have to spend considerable energy trying to account for him because he can line up from different positions and wreak havoc in various ways. The Wildcats are 3-1 ATS when Allen forces a fumble.
Why Penn State Can Win/Cover
PSU’s rush attack is getting stronger while Kentucky’s run defense is weakening. Miles Sanders accrued more than 120 rush yards in two of his last three games and Kentucky allowed more than 200 rushing yards in three of its last four games. Sanders is developing in his first year as PSU’s starting running back and PSU’s offensive line is benefitting from staying healthy together, which was not the case last year. The Wildcats are wearing down. Linebacker Jordan Jones was not himself when Georgia ran all over Kentucky and took advantage of sundry missed tackles. He has been ruled “out” for the Citrus Bowl. Penn State is 4-1 ATS when Sanders runs for 100+ yards.
Common Opponent/Series History
Both teams blew out an ACC opponent. In its season finale, Kentucky rocked a Louisville team that had quit its season. Penn State beat rival Pitt 51-6 in Week 2, although they outgained the Panthers by only 90 yards.
Kentucky is fading because the coaching staff struggles to make offensive adjustments and is easy for defensive coordinators to figure out. But the coaching staff can only do so much with Terry Wilson at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was brought in from Cincinnati because the Bearcats ranked so highly in passing offense. Kentucky runs, not passes, with the 14th-highest frequency not because Gran doesn’t want to pass but because Wilson can’t pass. Wilson averages 7 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 11th in the SEC, yet his passer rating ranks only 10th. Kentucky lacks a vertical threat because of his inability to throw downfield, to throw with anticipation, etc. It’s amazing that NFL-caliber tight end C.J. Conrad only has 29 receptions considering his size and athleticism. UK is simple to stop: stop Snell and win. Kentucky is 2-5 against the spread when Snell averages fewer than 5 YPC.
The Nittany Lions went into revenge-driven Michigan with an injured quarterback and got blown out, but limited Wisconsin to 10 points even though Taylor had his usual great game, and limited run-heavy Maryland to three points. Snell is a poor man’s Taylor, but will still produce decent-looking stats. PSU’s defense is growing. Its new defensive tackles are demanding more attention from offensive lines so that teammates such as first-year starting defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos take advantage of one-on-one match-ups and freshman linebacker Micah Parsons is playing a larger role, accruing more overall and solo tackles.
The Wildcats’ defense was never great per se, but against unbalanced offenses such as the early-season versions of Florida and Mississippi State. Florida and Mississippi State, both of which had quarterbacks who were struggling mightily as passers and failed to complete more than half their passes, were not balanced and scored 23 combined points against UK. Conversely, Georgia and Tennessee, both of which easily handled Kentucky and both of which ran for more than 200 yards and completed at least 60% of their passes, were balanced. Offensive balance did the most to bring Kentucky’s defense out of sorts and Penn State’s offense is balanced with Miles Sanders’ 5.9 YPC and Trace McSorley’s 70% adjusted completion.
PSU’s offense is growing late in the season. First-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne is figuring out how to use freshmen such as Pat Freiermuth, Jahan Dotson, and K.J. Hamler in all levels of the field. All the balance that Georgia and Tennessee needed to rock Kentucky was an efficient passing game. Weekly passing charts show McSorley’s focus and aptitude in short and intermediate passing – for example, 8/16 (three drops) for 148 yards and a touchdown in 0-19 yard throws in the season finale against Maryland’s 37th-ranked pass defense. Since the end of September, Hamler has been McSorley’s favorite target in shorter passing routes because of his ability to quickly gain separation.