Generally, we call this piece Three Up, Three Down, but there are too many ups after Northwestern’s 24-23 Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky. Here’s a look at who’s trending up and down following the game.
Justin Jackson ended his magnificent career at Northwestern with a storybook ending. It was the kind of game we’ve gotten used to seeing from the four-time 1,000 yard rusher. Jackson gashed Kentucky for 157 yards on 32 carries and scored 2 touchdowns, earning the workhorse running back MVP honors. It was Jackson’s 27th time surpassing 100 rushing yards in a game and he vaulted Anthony Thompson, Damion Fletcher and LaDainian Tomlinson in the FBS all-time rushing list.
Matt Alviti’s performance was nothing short of gutsy. Thrown into the game early in the second quarter after Clayton Thorson’s injury, Alviti finished 4-of-11 for 50 yards — and one of those completions was a 28-yard strike to Charlie Fessler. But Alviti managed the game by converting big third downs through the air twice and showcasing his dual-threat abilities with 54 yards on the ground. Alviti’s story is one of perseverance and resilience as the former four-star quarterback battled through an injury-riddled career. In the final game of his football career, Alviti was ready.
Benny Snell’s ejection in the second half halted Kentucky’s run-game, but so did Northwestern’s defense. The Wildcats held Snell to just 2.5 yards per carry in the first quarter, and then relegated Kentucky’s offense to one-dimensional as the game wore on. UK finished with just 65 yards on 22 attempts.
Kyle Queiro’s pick-six was the difference in this game. But this is nothing new for the senior safety. He had two interceptions and the game-winning pass breakup to seal an overtime win over Nebraska. One year ago, his interception sealed a Pinstripe Bowl victory. Two years ago, his interception preserved a season-opening upset over Stanford. Queiro has consistently made clutch plays in his Northwestern career. Today was a fitting end.
Jeremy Larkin had the best game of his young career, rushing for 112 yards on just nine carries. His 64-yard scamper in the fourth quarter was a career high as well. Larkin has been tremendous spelling Jackson all season, and he looks more than ready to assume the starting job next season.
Honorable mention: Warren Long, the entire O-line, Jace James, Nathan Fox, Joe Gaziano
Kickoff coverage (and kickoffs in general)
Luke Otto, who has handled kickoff duties all season, was replaced by redshirt freshman Drew Luckenbaugh in the second quarter. Otto’s kickoffs were noticeably short and eventually Pat Fitzgerald elected to squib kick in the fourth quarter. Perhaps Otto is hurt. Even though they weren’t working with great kickoffs, Northwestern’s kick coverage was not good. Kentucky took kick returns to its own 33, 35, 40 and 36, highlighted by a 37-yard return by Lynn Bowden Jr. Although they did not get burned for a touchdown, this was consistently poor kickoff coverage.
Fourth down success
Northwestern went 1-for-5 on fourth down. The reverse pass on the two-yard line near the goal line was an interesting play-call. Going for the win in the fourth quarter at your own 39-yard line is understandable. But you have to execute.
Come on guys. First, you tossed Benny Snell Jr. for this.
This is how Benny Snell got ejected pic.twitter.com/twelmXwYde— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) December 29, 2017
Later in the second quarter, Paddy Fisher was the casualty of this “make-up call.” No flag was initially thrown, but the refs went to the monitor and elected to toss Fisher for targeting with 22 seconds remaining in the first half. Fortunately, he won’t have to sit out the first half of the opener next season.
This was the targeting call. #Pac12Refs pic.twitter.com/aVRv4WIfrk— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) December 29, 2017
Not to mention that Riley Lees was hit helmet-to-helmet as a defenseless receiver in the second half, but there was no flag or video review. Kentucky’s 74-yard scoring drive in the third quarter was aided by Johnson’s 37-yard completion to Kayaune Ross that appeared to have hit the ground. The pass was ruled a completion, Kentucky hurried to the line, and the refs elected not to review the play. It was an awful day for the crew.
Honorable mention: Pass defense, injuries, not getting to watch NU football until August