Tis the season to be jolly as the Kentucky Wildcats have made their second straight bowl game.
The reward was a lump of coal in the form of the Northwestern Wildcats who seem to be a pretty tough matchup for Mark Stoops and his Wildcats.
Northwestern started the season at 2-3 and was coming off a blowout loss to then #4 Penn State 31-7 but then they turned their season around and simply put, refused to lose again.
They had an impressive streak of three straight overtime wins over Iowa, then #16 Michigan State and Nebraska. Buoyed by that, the Wildcats polished off the last three games to finish with a seven-game streak and the second place finish in the Big Ten West division.
I'm not one to knock a seven-game winning streak as it's obviously the sign of a good team, but the Wildcats were not facing world beaters during this streak. They did beat three decent teams in Iowa, Michigan State, and Purdue but the total win-loss mark of their seven straight wins was 37-47. Their seven conference wins had a combined 22-41 Big 10 record.
Granted, they beat the teams they were supposed to down the stretch. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the Wildcats of Kentucky so congrats to Northwestern for their season.
Let's meet the Northwestern Wildcats.
Clayton Thorson has been a solid and underrated quarterback for the Wildcats. With him as a starter, Northwestern is 26-12 and he is battle proven and experienced. He passed for 2,809 yards and had three games in which he threw for over 350. He also passed for a career-high 60.6% completion rate.
Thorson had 15 TDs and threw 12 interceptions, which was a big difference from last season's 22-9 mark. He also tends to take a lot of sacks and was 29 times this year and has been sacked 89 times the past three years.
Also underrated, Justin Jackson has been of the more consistent backs in the nation and has 5.283 career yards rushing and 39 career rushing touchdowns. He has 1,154 yards rushing with 9 TD.
At 5'11 and 200, he is the type of back that can grind it out but he has speed and can break the long run. He is also a good receiver with 43 catches on the year. Freshman Jeremy Larkin is his backup and has 391 yards rushing and 5 TDs.
Thorson has 8 TDs rushing but averages just 0.3 yards a carry after all the negative yardage for sacks has been removed.
Jackson's 43 catches actually have him second on the team in receptions, but Thorson has some other targets as well. Flynn Nagel leads the team with 47 catches and has 483 yards and 2 TDs. Bennett Skowronek leads in yardage with 619 yards for a 14 yard per reception average and 5 TDs.
Senior Macan Wilson has 446 yards and a touchdown and TE Garrett Dickerson has 401 yards and 4TDs. Thorsson averages just 11 yards a completion but this is a team that can pick you apart and put together a 14-yard drive with regularity.
The strength of this Northwestern team is a tough defense with a stingy run defense. They allow just 19.83 points a game and only 111 yards on the ground. Of the 28 touchdowns allowed, only 10 have come on the ground. The Wildcats allow just 3.3 yards per carry.
LDE Joe Gaziano is the best pass rusher on the team and leads the Wildcats with 8 sacks and 9 quarterback hurries. Freshman RDE Sam Miller has 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.
Trent Goens generally plays behind Gaziano but the pass rush does not slip much when he is in as he has 4 sacks and 5.5 TFL among his 15 tackles. DT's Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster both have 2.5 sacks.
Freshman LB Paddy Fisher has stepped up to be the heart of the defense at the MIKE position. He leads the team with 100 tackles and 8 of them for a loss. He does a decent job of getting after the quarterback and is a hard hitter that has forced 4 fumbles.
Nate Hall, who plays out of the SAM position has 2 interceptions, 5 sacks, and leads the team with 16.5 TFL. Brett Walsh plays the WILL LB spot and has 62 tackles.
Safety Godwin Igwebuike has 72 tackles, 2 interceptions and leads the team with 9 passes broken up. Fellow Senior Safety Kyle Quiero leads the team with 4 interceptions and also has 8 passes broken up and 5.5 TFL.
CB Montre Hartage and JR Pace also have two picks on the year. This is a secondary that you can pass on, though, as they give up about 248 yards a game.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
It's easy to see how Northwestern is a team that Kentucky does not match up well with. They play good solid defense, especially against the run and they are a good running team that can control the game.
The key to this game is whether Benny Snell and the Wildcats offensive line can establish the run. If they can do that, that will open up the passing game and Stephen Johnson can do some damage against this secondary. It's easy to see this defense shutting down the run and then making Johnson beat them with his arm. If that happens, it will be a long day.
After the way that Kentucky closed the season out against Louisville, it is easy to be disillusioned and expect Northwestern to have their way with Kentucky's defense. Kentucky has not really shut anyone down all year and Justin Jackson has been the type of back that has given UK problems all year.
Being an eternal optimist with Kentucky football, I have to admit that it has been tough to keep the faith this year. Heartbreaking losses to Florida and Ole Miss have jaded a lot of the fans as these games should have been wins and then we have a whole new outlook on the season.
Like last year, I'm expecting a vast improvement across the board with the added weeks of practice but the negativeness has told me to expect the same result as we had last year with the extra practice during the bowl.
Eventually, I have to be right and this team will respond the way I expect. Northwestern, despite their winning streak, is still a middle tier Big 10 team and is beatable.
It's only my credibility, but let's call this one 24-21 for the Wildcats of Kentucky.