So when Mark Stoops took a seat on the podium flanked by linebacker Josh Allen and running back Benny Snell Jr. after Tuesday’s 27-24 victory in the Citrus Bowl, the coach understandably was beyond excited.
“It was extremely important to this team, to all of us, to come home with some hardware, to come home with a trophy,” Stoops said.
Snell ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns to become Kentucky’s career rushing leader and helped the 16th-ranked Wildcats end their best season in more than four decades on a winning note.
“There’s no question that these guys changed the culture,” Stoops said. “They’ve done so much and meant so much to this team and this program that it was very important to finish, to collect the trophy, win 10 games and win a game on New Year’s Day. Believe me, we had a great belief that we didn’t have to do anything special (to win), just be us.”
Snell scored on runs of 2 and 12 yards in the second half, then carried for a couple of crucial first downs to help Kentucky (10-3) run out the clock after Penn State’s Trace McSorley trimmed a 27-7 deficit to three points despite playing with a foot injury.
McSorley threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns, and the Nittany Lions’ career passing and wins leader also rushed for a team-high 75 yards and one TD.
“The same thing that troubled us throughout the season troubled us here again today. Dropped balls, missed opportunities. That’s really kind of the story of the game,” said Penn State coach James Franklin, whose team started slowly on offense, missed one field goal and had another blocked.
Lynn Bowden Jr. scored on a 58-yard punt return for Kentucky. Allen, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, had three of the Wildcats’ six sacks.
“The three guys we knew we needed to stop were Bowden, Snell and Allen. All three of them showed up today,” Franklin said.
“They’ve built their program around those guys, they built their season around those guys,” Franklin added. “They made plays. That’s what great players do.”
Penn State (9-4) trailed 27-7 entering the fourth quarter, but McSorley’s wasn’t finished. His 1-yard TD run capped a 75-yard drive, and he followed with an 18-yard TD pass to Pat Friermuth to cut Kentucky’s lead to six.
The Nittany Lions marched to the Kentucky 14 on their next possession and pulled within 27-24 with 4:12 left.
Thanks to Snell, a junior who already has declared for the NFL draft, McSorley didn’t get the ball back until just one second was left on the clock.
Franklin declined to discuss specifics of McSorley’s injury.
“We don’t typically get into specifics. … Obviously Trace was experiencing some discomfort. The doctors felt like he could go, but it really just came down to Trace on how Trace felt,” Franklin said.
McSorley, who was to undergo further evaluation, said he hadn’t received “definitive information” on whether his foot was broken.
“I’ve been through too much, the team has been through too much. … They told me it was a matter of if I could deal with the discomfort,” the quarterback said. “If I could do that, I was going to play.”
Kentucky finished with its first 10-win season since 1977 — when the Wildcats went 10-1 — and just the third time in program history. The school also did it in 1950. Snell, meanwhile, broke Sonny Collins’ career rushing record on his 12-yard TD run that made it 27-7 late in the third quarter. Collins rushed for 3,835 yards from 1972-75.
Kentucky: Facing a tradition-rich opponent in a New Year’s bowl was significant for the Wildcats, who made the most of the opportunity. Along with the three sacks, Allen blocked a field goal to key a strong defensive effort, while the offense shrugged off a slow start to help the Wildcats pull away in the second half.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions fell short of their goal to finish with 10 wins in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1980-82. Three of their four losses were by a total of eight points.
Kentucky: Wildcats look to build on success they’ve had under coach Mark Stoops, who has transformed them into a Top 25 team. Their 5-3 record in SEC play represented their first winning mark in the league in 41 years, spawning heightened expectations for 2019.
Penn State: Nittany Lions face challenge of replacing McSorley, the school’s career leader for wins, completions, passing yards, passing TDs, total offense and rushing TDs by a quarterback.