Citrus Bowl Preview: Can Penn State's McSorley win his collegiate swan song?
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Citrus Bowl
Who:
No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 SEC) vs. No. 12 Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten)
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
TV: ABC
Odds: Penn State -6.5
Over/Under: 47.5

Tale of the Tape

2018 STATS Kentucky Penn State
Points Per Game 26.6 (T-84) 34.6 (T-30)
Points Against/Game 16.3 (8) 20.0 (20)
Rush Yards/Game 201.3 (38) 208.6 (29)
Pass Yards/Game 164.8 (115) 216.1 (77)
Total Yards/Game 366.2 (100) 424.7 (48)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 150.8 (49) 168.4 (71)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 181.3 (17) 186.5 (21)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 332.2 (22) 354.9 (37)
Third-Down Offense 41.5% (47) 37.9 (77)
Third-Down Defense 39.0% (67) 34.5% (30)
Red-Zone Offense 79.4% (100) 92.3% (6)
Red-Zone Defense 76.5 (18) 71.9% (T-5)
Team Sacks/Game 2.67 (T-32) 3.58 (2)
Turnover Differential 0 (T-68) +1 (T-58)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season in review

Kentucky

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You can make a compelling argument that this is the best season in Kentucky football history - certainly in the modern era of the SEC.

Mark Stoops has led his team to a 9-3 record, winning five conference games. Five. At Kentucky.

This is as good as it gets for the Wildcats. S&P+ pegs them as the 40th-best team in the country, far from a comfortable nestling in the top 15. The team began its historic season with five straight wins, a run that featured the end of a 31-game losing streak to Florida.

Wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina were impressive. There were, however, an awful lot of blah results against average-to-bad teams: Vanderbilt, 14-7; Missouri, 15-14; Tennessee, 7-24.

The formula all season has been a slow, grind-it-out offense combined with a hellacious pass rush. Thanks to an impressive rushing attack, Kentucky has been able to control time of possession and sustain long drives. That's exactly what it will need to do against this Penn State outfit.

Penn State

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Penn State's schedule on paper is deceiving. Two of the season's three losses - against Ohio State and Michigan State - came by a combined total of five points. Those would ordinarily be decent losses for James Franklin's team. Getting blown off the field by Michigan (42-7) would not.

Something about 2018's Nittany Lions never felt quite right. Star quarterback Trace McSorley has battled an ankle injury and his limited mobility restricted the offense. The read-options and semi-rolls upon which PSU’s offense is built have been far less deadly than in seasons past.

In the first four weeks of the season, Penn State dropped at least 40 points on every opponent it faced. Since then: zero times. McSorley and Co. have been held to under 25 points four times.

Franklin has had to rely on a young, growing defense and there were some early-season struggles. But since the team’s bye week after the Ohio State loss, the defense has played at a top-10 level.

This season feels somewhat like a disappointment to PSU fans. Yet it's important to remember how far Franklin has dragged this program in such a short time: Penn State finished 11th in S&P+ despite losing Saquon Barkley to the NFL and an optimal McSorley to injury.

Players to Watch

Kentucky LB Josh Allen

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There was a running joke on the interwebs last year that former Wyoming QB/current Buffalo Bills QB/walking debate piece Josh Allen wasn't even the best Josh Allen in college football. Now it's an indisputable fact.

Kentucky's Allen has evolved from a versatile player used in a myriad of ways for many different tasks to an out-and-out game-wrecking pass-rusher. The Wildcats have let Allen focus on nothing but hitting quarterbacks and, as a result, he's gotten better at everything.

Allen posted the most consistent season from any edge rusher in the country. His nation-leading 14 sacks are almost absurd and he tacked on an extra 18.5 TFLs and 21 run stuffs to make the year truly preposterous. There's now a real discussion among NFL aficionados as to whether Allen has a better pro future than Nick Bosa. Seriously.

Hops, strength, intelligence - it's all there. Allen has begun to master the moves within a move: he sets up payoff rushes for later in the game (jab, jab early; spin move late). His tape against Mississippi State is for mature audiences only.

Allen is always thinking one and two steps ahead. Overset and he has the agility to knife towards the inside shoulder. Drop anchor and Allen is happy to walk his blocker into the lap of a quarterback. Yet all of that is typically moot because he simply destroys blockers out of their stance; they can't keep up with his initial explosiveness:

What are we even supposed to do with this guy?

Penn State QB Trace McSorley

McSorley is set to leave Penn State as a program legend. Debates will rage over whether to anoint him the best quarterback in school history.

Unfortunately, his final year has been marred by a series of injuries. McSorley has gutted it out but his play has been limited for the majority of the season. There isn't the same zip on his fastball. The magic moments of improvisational brilliance have been fewer and farther between.

Still, McSorley saved his best for last in 2017. Given the break between the regular season and the bowl game - not to mention increased focus from NFL scouts in a shallow draft pool - could we get one final game of unencumbered McSorley excellence? Here's hoping.

Penn State LB Micah Parsons

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Expectations were sky-high when Micah Parsons rolled up to campus. The No. 2 edge rusher in last year’s recruiting class (No. 5 overall) was expected to come in and make an instant impact.

Parsons is a nice microcosm of PSU's defense. Things started slowly. He delivered a couple of highlight plays but wasn't playing a ton and wasn't performing at the highest level down in and down out.

He is now. PSU cycled through several combinations at all levels of its defense to find the right collection of skill sets. Parsons has shifted to a new role playing the see-ball-get-ball off-ball linebacker.

The long-armed apparition has more than a touch of Jamie Collins about his game. Brent Pry, Penn State’s underrated defensive coordinator, does a nice job shuffling Parsons between spots.

Parsons does some of his best work lined up in a two-point stance directly over the center. He has the burst to slip by the interior behemoths quickly or he can run an arc on some kind of stunt, twist, or gap exchange:

Parsons pairs first-step quickness with impressive flexibility and violent hands. He's racked up 11.5 run stuffs, 4 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks this season. Those numbers will explode in 2019. Get yourself an early preview of this soon-to-be superstar on Tuesday.

Kentucky's keys to victory

Make plays behind the line of scrimmage: This isn't the PSU offense of Joe Moorhead, McSorley, and Barkley. No down-and-distance was too difficult for that trio. This year, however, the new cast surrounding McSorley has struggled behind the chains; the team's tempo gets thrown off.

The Wildcats' defense has been among the best in the country at stuffing runs, generating TFLs, and sacking opposing quarterbacks. Penn State ranks 109th in passing-down sack rate. Get them behind the chains and their offensive line can't handle the pressure.

Stay ahead of the chains: Terry Wilson has been a not-insignificant part of Kentucky's success this year, but his limitations as a passer turn the Wildcats' offense into a perennial wildcat package. He is an explosive, impressive runner. He's also thrown 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions.

Wilson cannot win a game of this size from the pocket. If Penn State keeps Kentucky behind the chains, Wilson will throw the game away.

Penn State's keys to victory

Block Josh Allen: Allen isn't the only dynamic piece of Kentucky's defense, but he is far and away the best and deserves the majority of the attention.

Penn State has to game plan around the pass-rusher. Ricky Rahne, Penn State's offensive coordinator, cannot allow Allen to win the game. Double him. Triple him. Chip him. Slide protections. Roll the launch point. Do whatever necessary to nullify Allen. Lose to the team, not the team's best player.

Limit Explosive plays: The hallmark of PSU's defense has been to bend but not break. It does an excellent job limiting explosive plays and has been remarkable in the red zone.

Kentucky's offense is known for its long, sustained drives; this is not a big-play offense. That works in PSU's favor. But things could come unstuck if the Wildcats start to pop some explosive runs, which their ground attack has the talent to deliver.

Prediction

Kentucky 28, Penn State 24

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Citrus Bowl Preview: Can Penn State's McSorley win his collegiate swan song?
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