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Northwestern vs. Kentucky preview: Breaking down which team has the edge on paper

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A comprehensive look at how these two teams shake out.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

When Northwestern has the ball

Clayton Thorson and Northwestern’s offensive line got some good news when it was announced that Kentucky defensive end Denzil Ware is suspended for the Music City Bowl for a violation of team rules. Ware has 12 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, not to mention an interception and a couple forced fumbles this season. With Ware absent, Kentucky’s pass rush has linebacker Josh Allen (7 sacks in 2017) and not much else; no one other than Allen recorded 3 or more sacks. Freshman Josh Paschal will likely assume Ware’s starting position. What that means is that a team that might load the box to stop Justin Jackson will have a hard time getting to Thorson. As we’ve seen over the past few seasons, if Thorson has plenty of time to survey the field and throw, he can have a lot of success. Safety Mike Edwards is the name to know in the Kentucky secondary; Edwards is one of the best safeties in the SEC and a legitimate NFL prospect who leads the Wildcats in tackles (89), interceptions (4) and passes defended (6). However, Edwards alone wasn’t enough to stop Kentucky from giving up 263.5 passing yards per game this season, good for 113th in the nation. Thorson should have no trouble finding Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson, Bennett Skowronek and others if the line can keep Allen out of the backfield. Kentucky’s linebacker trio of Allen, Courtney Love and Jordan Jones is solid on paper, but the Wildcats aren’t good at defending the run either, ranking 93rd in run defense S&P+ and giving up 200+ yards on the ground in five of their last seven games. If Thorson can make some plays early and force Kentucky to respect the pass, Jackson and Jeremy Larkin could get stronger as the game goes along. Advantage: Northwestern

When Kentucky has the ball

This is a fascinating matchup of strength against strength. Not in the literal sense (although Tyler Lancaster is pretty freaking strong), but in the sense that this is a Kentucky team that runs the ball a lot — and has success doing it — versus a Northwestern team that excels at stopping the run. In the regular season, Kentucky attempted 290 passes and ran the ball 458 times. I’m sure some of those runs were scrambles from quarterback Stephen Johnson on designed passing plays, but it’s still a major disparity. By now, you’ve probably heard of Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky’s powerful running back who racked up 1,318 yards (on 5.1 YPC) and 18 touchdowns this season. He’s always a handful to stop, but if anyone can do it, it’s Northwestern and a run defense that ranks top-10 in yards allowed per game (111.3) and top-20 in S&P+. Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall are among the most underrated linebackers in the country, and the Lancaster-led defensive line makes things happen at the point of attack. Snell, who has gone over 175 yards in three of his last five games, is going to get his yards and be a huge threat in the red zone, but NU has to make him earn those yards the hard way and avoid giving up big plays. Where Kentucky has more of an advantage, at least on paper, is in the passing game. Northwestern is just 79th in pass defense S&P+ and Kentucky is actually rather efficient through the air (29th in passing S&P+). Johnson completes over 60 percent of his passes and has only thrown four picks this season, but he also has only surpassed 200 yards passing three times. Kentucky’s pass-catching corps is headlined by 500-yard receiver Garrett Johnson and five players with between 210 and 286 receiving yards. Will Kentucky abandon its run-first strategy if Snell is getting bottled up? Johnson can also run the ball (97 attempts for 358 yards), something Northwestern has struggled with at times. Unlike Kentucky, NU will have both of its dangerous pass rushers (Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller) active on Friday. Advantage: Northwestern

Special Teams

Tristan Jung touched on Kentucky’s impressive special teams in his post about why Northwestern will or won’t win.

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.

It’s a major longshot that Walker breaks a big return since he’s only had one big game per year over the last two seasons, but the threat is there. Kentucky kick returner Lynn Bowden Jr.’s 23.1-yard average is significantly better than that of either Lees or John Moten IV. And senior kicker McGinnis is deployed far more often than Kuhbander is. Both teams have solid punters who average roughly 43 yards per punt, but the southern Wildcats definitely have the on-paper edge in special teams, for what that’s worth. Advantage: Kentucky

Coaching

Pat Fitzgerald’s resume at Northwestern is quite impressive. He turned a middling program that experienced some brief jolts of success in 1995, 1996, and 2000 into a consistent winner. During his tenure, NU has experienced:

  • Winning seasons in three straight years, four of the last six, and seven of the last 10.
  • Two of the program’s three bowl wins. Ever.
  • Two 10-win seasons.

The Fitz era is peaking as we speak. He can add another bowl win and 10-win season to his list of accomplishments with a victory on Friday, and Northwestern’s recruiting continues to improve. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been consistently excellent, especially in recent years. And while the criticism of offensive coordinator Mick McCall and some of the position coaches on that side of the ball (see: Cushing, Adam and Springer, Dennis) is justified, the Wildcats’ offense has made major strides down the stretch of this season and exploded for several big games in 2016.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops served as the defensive coordinator at Arizona and Florida State before taking his first head coaching job in Lexington in 2012. Since then, the Wildcats have steadily improved but still appear to be a ways away from making the leap to competing for an SEC East title.

Kentucky’s SB Nation site, A Sea of Blue, mentioned poor game management and lack of control over the team as reasons why it doesn’t believe he’s the man for the job in a post-season column. As far as his assistants go, OC Eddie Gran boasts an impressive resume and has put together some creative, effective packages for the Kentucky offense, most notably the deadly use of the Wildcat in the red zone. However, DC Matt House is relatively inexperienced and leads a defense that was shredded repeatedly in SEC play this season. Coaching staffs are tough to compare, but Northwestern’s staff (which has been the same since the dawn of time) has accomplished more, so they get the edge. Advantage: Northwestern

Intangibles

The four above elements make up just about everything in a football game, but there are always other factors to consider. The best example of that is the location of the game, and in this case, that’s something that theoretically works to Kentucky’s advantage. Nashville is a 3-hour drive from Lexington (but much less for UK fans in Tennessee or southern Kentucky) and an 8-hour drive from Evanston, so there should be plenty of blue in the stands at Nissan Stadium. I do wonder how much the presence of a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game happening at the same time will affect those numbers, but I’d imagine it won’t be enough to swing to a purple majority. Additionally, it’s possible Kentucky will play looser, as it’s the team with nothing to lose. Last season, Northwestern was the underdog that no one gave a chance to — and then it went out and beat Pitt. This year, Kentucky is in that role and surely feels disrespected by the touchdown spread and the overwhelming consensus in favor of NU. From everything that’s been said, Northwestern isn’t taking Kentucky lightly, but if it’s a close game late, could pressure affect Fitz’s Cats with their tenth win on the line? Advantage: Kentucky