NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his 20th-ranked Wildcats have a chance to make school history with victory against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.
They could walk away with back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in Northwestern history. It would also mark a 10-win season for the second time in three years and be the 27th victory for the Wildcats’ seniors.
“That hasn’t since 1903 to 1905, so I think my grandmother and grandparents were still in Ireland at that time,” Fitzgerald said of reaching 27 wins. “So we understand the historical significance of this game for our program.”
Sure, Northwestern (No. 21 CFP, 9-3) might have been happier playing in a warmer bowl game further south of Nashville. But Fitzgerald said the Wildcats knew Big Ten rules wouldn’t let them return to the Outback Bowl after they played there to cap the 2015 season.
Executives of the Music City Bowl, sponsored by Franklin American Mortgage, have worked to make Northwestern feel wanted.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson also noted it’s still warmer in Nashville than it is in Chicago.
“It’s history for us, and this win is big for our program,” Thorson said.
Of course, Kentucky has other plans.
Kentucky is the first team to play in this bowl five times, and the Wildcats (7-5) from Lexington had hopes of a much better bowl destination themselves. But that was before consecutive losses to Georgia and Louisville left them third in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. They usually bring a hefty chunk of the Big Blue Nation with them and hope that support pushes them to their first 8-5 season since 2007.
“It’s very important to get the eighth victory,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who’s wrapping up his fifth season. “Each and every game is so valuable when you’re only guaranteed 12. So getting a win would be good, especially with not ending the season the way we’d like.”
Here are some things to know about the 20th Music City Bowl:
GREAT RUNNING BACKS
Northwestern has senior Justin Jackson who comes in as the nation’s second active career rusher with 5,283 yards, and he has 1,154 yards this season with nine touchdowns. Kentucky’s offense depends heavily on sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr. who finished second in the SEC and 23rd nationally with 1,318 yards rushing and an SEC-best 18 rushing TDs.
Fitzgerald says his Wildcats must be stay in their gaps to protect against the physical Snell in the variety of Kentucky’s formations, including the wildcat. “What’s so impressive to me about Snell is how much he can handle what they’re asking him to do,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern comes in with the nation’s 10th-best run defense, giving up 111.3 yards per game. Northwestern led by linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall have been much stingier, having held opponents to an average of 96 yards rushing per game over the final 10 games of the season.
Stoops has suspended defensive end-linebacker Denzil Ware for the bowl game, even though Ware is with the Wildcats in Nashville. The Kentucky coach would only say the suspension is for violating team rules. Stoops would not comment when asked if the suspension would affect next season. Ware had 6 ½ sacks for Kentucky this season as part of the Blitz Bros with linebacker Josh Allen who has seven sacks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he can commiserate with Ware having missed the Rose Bowl as a player himself.
Kentucky comes in having been intercepted only five times this season, tied for the school single-season record for fewest picks. The Wildcats’ defense comes in with 11 interceptions led by safety Mike Edwards who ranked second in the SEC with four himself. Thorson has thrown 15 TDs for Northwestern this season but has been picked off 12 times.
Northwestern comes into this bowl having won seven straight, including three overtime games. Northwestern also won its bowl game last season, upsetting then-No. 23 Pittsburgh 31-24 in the Pinstripe Bowl. Kentucky is playing its second straight bowl and lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl last season.