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Music City Bowl preview: Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Kentucky

Northwestern will need to rely on its strengths to get by Kentucky.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Music City Bowl is right around the corner! In just about two days, Northwestern will be playing Kentucky in Nashville.

Why Northwestern will beat Kentucky

Northwestern’s running backs and offensive line are better than Kentucky’s defensive front

Kentucky’s defensive efforts have essentially been subpar since September. According to the Wildcats’ advanced stat profile, the defense has not put together a performance better than the 40th percentile in its last seven games. To translate, Kentucky hasn’t been better than average for most of the season (Northwestern has 6 above average performances in that time, all in the 77th percentile or greater). In its two games leading up to the Music City Bowl, Georgia and Louisville rushed for 9.7 and 8.0 yards per carry. Kentucky got completely blown out in both those contests.

Northwestern doesn’t have Nick Chubb or Lamar Jackson, but Justin Jackson, Jeremy Larkin and Clayton Thorson should be more than up to the task. Northwestern’s offensive line has also improved greatly in the second half of the season. While the run blocking has still been inconsistent (see the Michigan State game), the purple Wildcats didn’t have any trouble blocking against Minnesota and Illinois, both teams in the 100+ range of rushing defense S&P+. Kentucky sits at 93rd in that stat. Kentucky’s entire defense is young and unproven, and Northwestern will win if that inexperience shows through on Friday.

The “bad Clayton Thorson” stays in Evanston.

Anyone who has watched Northwestern consistently in the Thorson years has seen “bad Clayton Thorson.” You know, the guy who looks like he can’t complete a pass and makes horrendous decisions with the football? After seeing one game like that, you would never expect Thorson to come back the next week and look like an NFL prospect. And yet, somehow, this has happened repeatedly over the last two years.

As long as Clayton Thorson doesn’t have one of those games, Northwestern’s passing attack should be able to take advantage of a weak Kentucky secondary. Kentucky has been staying in games by forcing enough turnovers and quick three-and-outs to get Benny Snell back on the field (Vanderbilt’s 4 INT performance on 11/11 comes to mind). Clayton Thorson doesn’t even have to be spectacular to get Northwestern over the line. He just needs to not be terrible and Northwestern should have a good shot.

Paddy Fisher, Nate Hall, and Tyler Lancaster shut down Benny Snell Jr.

Benny Snell Jr. is the undisputed offensive star of the Kentucky Wildcats. Quarterback Stephen Johnson can make things happen, sometimes, but Snell was really the brightest star for Kentucky this year. He has 1,318 rushing yards already this year, and he’s also scored 18 touchdowns.

Opposing him will be Northwestern’s defensive front, a unit that has been solid for most of the season. This group mostly shut down Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and completely dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half of the season. This defensive line and linebacking corps are the best units on the field. If they can do their thing and shut down Snell, Northwestern will have a huge and decisive advantage.

Why Kentucky will beat Northwestern

Northwestern starts the game and the third quarter cold.

The enduring theme of this Northwestern football season is the slow start. Northwestern’s first quarter offensive S&P+ ranks 107th in the country. In the second and fourth quarters (and presumably overtime), Northwestern’s offense is 29th and 23rd, respectively. While Northwestern is prone to very bad starts and third quarters, those periods are where Kentucky excels. Kentucky’s defense played dramatically better in the first and third quarters this season. If Kentucky can seize the initiative with an early turnover and push Northwestern on the defensive early, that could be the start of an uphill battle for Northwestern.

Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson connects on some deep passes.

Northwestern’s secondary has had an up-and-down season. When the secondary has faltered, it’s often been because it allows big plays downfield. Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson isn’t afraid of throwing deep. In 2016, Kentucky was in the top 25 nationally in plays over 40 yards. Those big plays haven’t materialized in 2017, but that’s clearly somewhere Kentucky can take advantage. I’d expect Kentucky to take as many deep shots as possible. Granted, Kentucky’s wide receivers haven’t shown the ability to get open downfield consistently, but I think they have to at least try to stretch the field against the one weak area of the Northwestern defense. If Johnson can find some magic from 2016, Kentucky could be in business.

Kentucky’s special teams make a difference.

The one area where Kentucky has an advantage is special teams, where the blue Wildcats come in at 24th in S&P+ and the purple Wildcats are at 69th. Special teams metrics are extremely finicky, so I would take this with a grain of salt, but Kentucky does seem to have a slight advantage in the punt return game. To be fair, punt returner Charles Walker fair catches even more than Riley Lees, but Walker’s average return yardage is a solid 17.2 yards, which could be problematic. Both teams also have solid kickers, although I’d actually give the edge to Kuhbander over Kentucky’s Austin McGinnis in terms of reliability (McGinnis does have a better leg). Kentucky will need some turnover luck in this game, and a few special teams plays would also be quite beneficial.