Justin Jackson and Jeremy Larkin vs. Kentucky’s Run Defense
Northwestern’s running back position has evolved from a one-man show to a dynamic duo. Justin Jackson still owns the MVP title for the Wildcats in my book. However, Jeremy Larkin — who tallied 500 scrimmage yards and 5 touchdowns this season — has made massive strides and allowed NU fans to breathe a little easier with Jackson’s career ending after this game. In fact, the redshirt freshman protégé has surpassed the master in average yards per attempt with a strong 5.2 yards per carry.
That said, Jackson will likely put on a show, as per usual, in his final collegiate performance to cap off a record-breaking four years unlike anything Northwestern fans have ever witnessed at the running back position. The senior will take the field in Nashville coming off his fourth straight 1,000+ yard regular season and looking to have a second straight massive bowl game performance after he went for 224 yards in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl.
Luckily for Jackson and Larkin, Kentucky ranks 93rd in rush defense S&P+. Considering the defensive powerhouses this pair has had to face this season, with the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State in their conference, the other Wildcats shouldn’t be able to shut them down. In its last two games, Kentucky gave up 381 rushing yards to Georgia and 346 to Louisville. The Wildcats’ trio of linebackers — Courtney Love, Josh Allen, and Jordan Jones — are talented, but this is a run defense that seems to have worn down as the season went along. If Kentucky’s defensive game plan echoes that of the majority of Northwestern’s opponents this season, stopping Jackson will be priority number one; but with Jackson’s likelihood to leave it all on the field for his last hurrah, backed by the support of Larkin, I’d be surprised if the duo isn’t able to successfully cut through this overall mediocre defense.
Bennett Skowronek vs. Safety Mike Edwards
Northwestern and Clayton Thorson spread the ball around to a number of targets this season, but sophomore Bennett Skowronek emerged as the most dangerous threat at wide receiver. After he caught Justin Jackson’s 12-yard touchdown pass to give Northwestern the lead in the eventual triple overtime win against Michigan State, Skowronek went on to add touchdown receptions against Purdue and Minnesota, giving him 5 on the season. He caught 7 balls for 117 receiving yards — his highest totals in both categories since Week 1 — and a well-defended touchdown catch in the win over the Boilermakers. Thorson has expressed confidence in Skowronek’s ability to come down with the ball, which you can see in the aforementioned touchdown catch against Purdue:
Skowronek’s biggest competition will come in the form of safety Mike Edwards. The leading Kentucky tackler is responsible for four of the team’s 11 interceptions, 89 total tackles, four tackles for loss and six passes defended. Last season, Edwards was on the All-SEC second team. If it comes down to battles in the air with these two, Skowronek’s 6-foot-4 frame compared to Edwards’ 6-foot build should give him an advantage and allow him to come down with the catch more often than not.
Kentucky Running Back Benny Snell Jr. vs. Paddy Fisher and Co.
Sure, there have been standouts in Northwestern’s defense this season, namely Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year Paddy Fisher (who totaled 108 tackles this regular season) and freshman All-American Samdup Miller. But, there’s also Nate Hall, Joe Gaziano, Tyler Lancaster…and the rest of this stacked front seven. This group has been raved about all season long, and with good reason. NU’s run defense has allowed just 111.3 yards per game (10th-best in the nation) and is 20th in the country according to S&P+. Fisher and Hall combined for 20 non-sack TFLs and present an imposing matchup for any running back.
Who has the job of running full-speed into this brick wall? Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. — and he might just be up for the challenge. Snell is coming off his second straight 1,000-yard regular season and has averaged 5.9 yards per carry this year. The sophomore averaged just under 110 yards per game this season and found the end zone 18 times — 12 of which came in just the last five games. Snell is a scoring threat that should not be taken lightly, but it’s hard to find a running back worth betting on to have success against this stout Northwestern rush defense.