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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern wins the Music City Bowl 24-23

I repeat, Northwestern wins the Music City Bowl.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

They found a way.

For a while, everything was awful, for everyone involved. Clayton Thorson went down with a terrible knee injury. Benny Snell and Paddy Fisher got ejected under dubious circumstances. There were injuries, incensed coaches, and fans in disbelief. And that was just before halftime.

But in the end, thanks to a pass breakup on a two-point conversion, the Northwestern Wildcats (10-3) defeated the Kentucky Wildcats (7-6) in a game of American football. Thanks to a spectacular dual rushing attack from Justin Jackson (32 carries 157 yards and 2 TDs) and Jeremy Larkin (9 carries 112 yards) and a brilliant defensive play from Kyle Queiro, Northwestern survived. That’s just how it goes, more often than not, for this team.

The game started with bad news. Northwestern starting linebacker Nate Hall was ruled out for the game before the first snap. On the first snap, Kentucky completed a long pass downfield that quickly set up a Benny Snell Jr. touchdown after less than three minutes. Northwestern responded with two three-and-outs, but Kentucky failed to capitalize. After a solid drive from Thorson and the offense, Northwestern got on the board with a Charlie Kuhbander field goal from 33 yards out.

The defense appeared to recover from the debacle on the first drive and forced a punt. Northwestern quickly reached the Kentucky 29 before disaster struck. NU ran a gadget play that called for a running back pass to quarterback Clayton Thorson. Jeremy Larkin’s pass was right on the money, but as Thorson was tackled near the sideline, his right knee buckled and he went down. He was down on the sideline for an extended period and had to be carted off the field. While X-rays came back negative and he returned to the sideline in the second half, his status will be a huge question mark heading into 2018.

But the game rolled on, and Jackson quickly plunged into the end zone to make it 10-7 Northwestern. It didn’t feel very good, but Northwestern had the lead. On the ensuing drive, Benny Snell Jr. got ejected for making contact with a referee while trying to get up. It was not a good call, and Kentucky punted again. With Matt Alviti now in the game, Northwestern turned the ball over on downs, setting up Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson with good field position. But Montre Hartage snagged a tipped ball and intercepted Johnson. Northwestern cashed in another touchdown behind Justin Jackson, who played another great game in his last opportunity.

Then, with Northwestern up 17-7, things got even weirder. Kentucky quickly took advantage of Northwestern’s secondary and drove into field goal range. However, an incompletion and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Kentucky’s bench after Johnson injured forced Kentucky out of field goal range.

Northwestern failed to run out the clock, however, and Kentucky got the ball back with less than a minute remaining. Then, on what appeared to be a fairly routine play, Paddy Fisher made a tackle on a Kentucky receiver. A while after the play ended, the referees ruled that Fisher, Northwestern’s star linebacker, committed targeting, and was thus ejected.

Northwestern started the second half well, but an incompletion on fourth-and-2 in Kentucky territory (and in field goal range) gave the ball back to Kentucky. Johnson, now back in the game, led his team down the field and punched the ball in for the score to make it 17-14.

The next Northwestern drive brought yet more controversy. Northwestern managed to sneak down the field thanks to a long Alviti run on second-and-long. The Northwestern Wildcats were then aided by another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Kentucky, this time on Jordan Jones. But a holding call and a false start forced Northwestern back, and Charlie Kuhbander missed the field goal from 43.

On the next drive, Kentucky stalled out on the edge of Northwestern’s territory and Johnson got crushed by Joe Gaziano. The ball popped out but was later ruled to have been incomplete. Regardless of the outcome, Johnson was forced out of the game and backup Drew Barker threw an incomplete pass.

But Northwestern went three-and-out on its next possession, handing a recovered Stephen Johnson the ball. This time, Northwestern’s defense stood tall. Senior Warren Long, in his first and only career start at linebacker, came up with a huge pass breakup on second down and Northwestern forced a Kentucky punt.

On the next play, Jeremy Larkin broke an incredible 64-yard run down to the Kentucky 10-yard line. But Northwestern failed to convert a fourth-and-two from the two-yard line due to a bonkers Riley Lees flea flicker that went nowhere. Yeah, don't ask us about that play-call.

But then, Kyle Queiro made one of the great plays in Northwestern history. Queiro made a perfect jump on a Johnson pass, intercepted the ball, and tiptoed down the sideline for a cathartic pick-six that gave Northwestern a 10-point lead. He’s made about 10 all-time plays in his career, but this one, in his final game, will be imprinted in Northwestern history forever.

Kentucky could only manage a field goal on its next drive after converting a short fourth down. But on its ensuing drive, Northwestern could only get a fourth-and-short near its own 40. Pat Fitzgerald, ever the gambler, went for it. Northwestern was stopped inches short after the Alviti sneak and Kentucky got the ball back. The play was upheld under review.

Kentucky picked up a quick completion, but Long (again, starting at linebacker for the first time) sacked Johnson to force a tough third down. Then Northwestern got called for holding. Johnson scored on a 9-yard run and then Kentucky went for two.

Marcus McShepard, who had been burned repeatedly all day, redeemed himself and this game by breaking up the pass. Northwestern won. Matt Alviti kneeled and the Wildcats won.

(takes an enormous swig of Jack Daniels)