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2009 Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Clemson Game Preview

The Kentucky Wildcats (7-5) will be looking for an historic fourth bowl game victory in a row tonight in Nashville, Tennessee (8:30 PM on ESPN) against a familiar bowl foe in the Clemson Tigers (8-5).  Clemson, who came within a wildcat whisker of playing in a BCS Bowl game this year, will be looking to halt a two-game losing streak, after season-ending losses to South Carolina, and Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.  Kentucky, after losing a 30-24 overtime heart-breaker to rival Tennessee in their final regular season contest, is searching to keep alive the momentum within the program.   

For the game particulars, follow me after the jump.

Statistical Comparison

Points Per Game: Clemson - 31.9  UK - 27.2

Opp. Points Per Game: Clemson - 21.0  UK - 22.8

Total Yards Per Game: Clemson - 365.5  UK - 336.1

Total Yards PG Allowed: Clemson - 317.2  UK - 362.9

Rush Yards Per Game: Clemson - 169.6  UK - 193.3

Rush Yards PG Allowed: Clemson - 150.3  UK - 183.2

Pass Yards Per Game: Clemson - 195.9  UK - 142.8

Pass Yards PG Allowed: Clemson - 166.8  UK - 179.8

Third Down Conversion: Clemson - 38.7%  UK - 39.0%

Opp. Third Down Conversion: Clemson - 39.1%  UK - 39.7%

Turnover Margin: Clemson - + 5  UK - +3

Punt Return Average: Clemson - 14.4  UK - 13.1

Kick-Off Return Average: Clemson - 23.8  UK - 23.8

Sacks By: Clemson - 34  UK - 19

Tiger Results

8 Wins -- Middle Tennessee (37-14), Boston College (25-7), Wake Forest (38-3), Miami, Fla. (40-37 in OT), Coastal Carolina (49-3), Florida State (40-24), NC State (43-23), Virginia (34-21).

5 Losses -- Georgia Tech (30-27), TCU (14-10), Maryland (24-21), South Carolina (34-17), Georgia Tech (39-4).

Tiger Offensive Personnel

Kyle Parker -- 6'1", 200 lb redshirt freshman quarterback: Parker has completed 197 of 355 passes (55.5%), for 2,385 yards and 19 touchdowns (12 interceptions).  He's carried the ball 58 times for 119 yards (2.1 yards per carry).

The young quarterback has done a great job of keeping defenses honest this season with his arm, allowing running back C.J. Spiller the opportunity to roam free without the challenge of a stacked box. 

C.J. Spiller -- 5'11", 195 lb senior all-purpose running back: Spiller has accounted for 1,145 rushing yards on 201 attempts (5.7 ypc), and 11 touchdowns.  He has caught 33 passes for 445 yards (13.5 yards per reception), and four touchdowns.  He's returned eight punts for 210 yards (26.3 return average), and one touchdown, as well as 21 kick-offs for 708 yards (33.7 yards per return), and four touchdowns.

Spiller has set or tied 31 school offensive records.  He's only the sixth player in ACC history to record over 3,000 rushing yards (3,450) and 1,000 receiving yards (1,362) in a career.  A combination of speed, power and elusiveness, Spiller set the NCAA record for kick-off return touchdowns with seven.  In his career, Spiller has accumulated 7,416 all-purpose yards (third in NCAA history), to go along with 51 total touchdowns in 50 career games -- Simply put, Spiller will be the most dangerous player on the field, which is lofty praise considering he'll be competing against Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke.  He must be accounted for as a runner, receiver, and returner, for he is capable of single-handedly winning the game for Clemson.  UK's special teams' coverage must remain in their lanes, fulfilling  their assignment, because Spiller can locate gaps and hit them with extreme prejudice.  Spiller recorded three games this season with at least 300 all-purpose yards.  Clemson's average starting field position for the year has been their own 38 yard line, compared to Tiger opponents, who have averaged starting on their own 24 yard line.  In my view, if Spiller played for Alabama and Mark Ingram played for Clemson, Spiller would have been the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner -- Spiller had eight touches for 72 yards in the 2006 Music City Bowl versus UK.

Jacoby Ford -- 5'10", 185 lb senior wide receiver: Ford has 53 catches for 735 yards (13.9 ypr), and five touchdowns.

Spiller and Ford are the nations top all-purpose duo, accounting for a combined 11,453 yards in their four year careers. 

Michael Palmer -- 6'5", 260 lb senior tight end: Palmer has caught 41 passes for 468 yards (11.4 ypr), and four touchdowns.

Palmer poses real problems for UK in this game.  With Kentucky missing their best defensive player in linebacker Sam Maxwell (and his team-leading six interceptions), who has been responsible for covering tight ends for much of the year, Palmer must be spied by either a corner back, or Maxwell's replacement, Jacob Dufrene.  Neither is an attractive alternative due to Palmer's size and speed.

Tiger Defensive Personnel 

Brandon Maye -- 6'3", 230 lb sophomore linebacker: Maye leads the Tigers with 103 tackles (62 solo).  He's also responsible for 7.0 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks.

Maye is a ball-hawk, and will be a challenge for UK offensive personnel, particularly Locke and Cobb. 

Ricky Sapp -- 6'5", 240 lb senior defensive end: Sapp leads the Tigers with 15.0 tackles for loss.

Da'Quan Bowers -- 6'4", 280 lb sophomore defensive end: Bowers leads the team with 3.0 sacks.

The combination of Sapp and Bowers poses a real risk for the Wildcats' running and passing game.  They both pressure the passer, and cut off the edges, forcing teams to run up the middle.  UK's offensive line will be challenged to neutralize the two excellent ends, in order for the 'Cats to effectively run their offensive sets.

Marcus Gilchrist -- 5'11", 190 lb junior defensive back: Gilchrist is second on the team with 99 tackles (68 solo).  He's also recorded one tackle for loss, and one sack, as well as five pass breakups.

DeAndre McDaniel -- 6'1", 210 lb junior safety: McDaniel leads the team with eight interceptions, and one INT returned for a  touchdown.

Rashard Hall -- 6'2", 195 lb redshirt freshman safety: Hall is second on the team with six picks. 

All three members of the Tiger secondary (Gilchrist, McDaniel, Hall) will pressure UK quarterback Morgan Newton with their ability to read the eyes of the passer, and close quickly when the ball is released to the receivers.  Newton must not lock onto his "hot" route, or it could be a long, and unpleasant bowl experience for the UK freshman.

Note: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will be without four suspended players tonight -- Back-up tackles Jamie Cumbie and Rennie Moore, third string tight end Durrell Berry, and back-up receiver Kyle Johnson. 

CliffsNotes Analysis 

When UK looks in the mirror, they see the Clemson Tigers: Both teams boast strong running/all-purpose games, to go along with young quarterbacks.  Offensively, the key for the 'Cats is to establish Derrick Locke (843 rushing yards, 254 receiving yards, eight combined touchdowns) and Randall Cobb (537 rush yards, 427 receiving yards, 77 passing yards, 14 combined touchdowns) via the "Wildcat" formation.  UK dusted off their most dangerous weapon (the "Wildcat") more often versus Tennessee than they did earlier in the season, and I look for a continuance of that philosophy tonight.  But, quarterback Morgan Newton (or Mike Hartline) must be allowed to throw the ball down the field against the Tiger secondary, because if short passes (although the bubble screen to Locke was used with good success versus UT) and hand-offs are in the offing for UK, Clemson will simply cut loose their two dangerous defensive ends and bring up the safety, effectively stuffing the Wildcat attack.

Although Clemson's C.J. Spiller is a lethal threat via returns, Kentucky also lays claim to two of the most elusive return men in all of college football in the form of Locke (29.6 kick-off return average, one touchdown), and Cobb (13.5 punt return average, one touchdown).  Considering Clemson allows 13.1 yards per punt return, Randall Cobb may be presented with the opportunity to secure great field position for the UK offense ... he, along with his special teams' blockers must take full advantage of this Clemson weakness.

Defensively, the key for Kentucky is wrapping-up Spiller, and containing tight end Michael Palmer.  UK has suffered, from time to time this season, from poor tackling technique, and Spiller is the man that will make the Wildcat tacklers pay the ultimate price for not hitting with a purpose.  I expect UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown to stay with his base 3-4 defense, unless Spiller begins to shred the 'Cats.  In that case, defensive back Paul Warford might be bought up to the line of scrimmage, putting eight men in the box, which will then put the defensive impetus on the shoulders of Trevard Lindley and his cohorts in UK's secondary.

The most important aspect for Kentucky, coming into this game, will be the health of Randall Cobb (shoulder) and Derrick Locke (knees).  With a month to recover from their respective injuries, both players should be at peak capacity, which could be the difference-maker for the 'Cats.

Fearless Prediction

Kentucky - 30  Clemson - 28

Additional Game Coverage

For Tru's excellent pre-game analysis, click here.

For more of my thoughts on the game, and previous UK bowl game memories, visit Wildcat Blue in a Sea of Orange.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats beat the Tigers!