By: Bo Bowen
After a 9-3 (7-2 Big Ten) 2017 campaign, including a 7-game win streak to end the regular season, the Northwestern Wildcats were rewarded with a trip to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. They will take on the 7-5 (4-4 SEC) Kentucky Wildcats. This will be the 3rd straight year in which Northwestern will be playing in a bowl game, and their 8th bowl game under Pat Fitzgerald.
Kentucky started the year hot with a 5-1 start. But Coach Mark Stoops’ team has stumbled lately, dropping 3 of their last 5 games. Northwestern comes into the bowl fresh off a 7-game win streak. With both teams going in very different directions into this bowl game, here are 5 things to watch for:
Stephen Johnson versus the world: Kentucky’s quarterback is their most dynamic player. He finished the regular season with 2048 yards passing with a 60.7 completion percentage and 856 yards rushing. The Kentucky offense goes as Johnson goes. Priority number one for Pat Fitzgerald will be to stop Johnson. Northwestern’s secondary has stepped up in the past few weeks, so look for them to force Johnson to keep the ball on the ground.
Justin Jackson’s Final Game: The Music City Bowl will be the final game in the Ball Carrier’s illustrious career. Northwestern’s most accomplished player had a tremendous senior season, finishing with 1,154 rushing yards, eclipsing 1,000 yards in a season for the fourth time in his career. Kentucky has a solid run defense, presenting an interesting challenge for Jackson’s final contest for the purple Wildcats.
Benny Snell Jr.: On the other side of the field, Benny Snell Jr. is a dynamic running back for Kentucky. He finished second in the SEC in rushing yards with 1,318 on the season. Northwestern has a top-25 run defense which will force Kentucky to be more creative with their play-calling. Snell averages 5.1 yards per carry so Northwestern will have to hem him in if they want to keep the Kentucky offense one-dimensional.
Clayton Thorson vs. Kentucky’s Secondary: It has been a rollercoaster year for Thorson, who has shown improvement from the 2016 campaign. Thorson has played well in big spots, however. Kentucky is allowing 309 passing yards per game. With big-play potential in sophomore wideout Bennett Skowronek, Northwestern could look to torch Kentucky through the air.
Home-Field Advantage: With the bowl hosted in Nashville, Kentucky will likely have a significant home-field advantage. Northwestern is 3-2 on the road (6-1 at home) and can sometimes seem like a different team on the road. With more blue than purple in the stands, Northwestern could face a more hostile environment than any they have seen recently.
The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl promises to be a good matchup of Big Ten and SEC teams. Northwestern will look to extend their current win streak to 8 games and have their first 10-win season since 2015.