Tuesday’s Citrus Bowl saw Kentucky’s Benny Snell break through the middle of the pack with 1:35 left in the third quarter to become the all-time rushing leader in school history, as his 12-yard touchdown run looked to secure the Wildcats first 10-win season since 1977.
Little did we know that a 27-7 lead would soon evaporate in Orlando, as Penn State made a frantic comeback — scoring 17 points in the final quarter — but Snell once again made huge plays down the stretch to lead Kentucky to a 27-24 win over the Nittany Lions in front of 59,167 fans at Camping World Stadium.
With 4:16 left in the game, Penn State failed to convert on a 3-and-6 pass play and chose to kick a field goal to cut the lead to 27-24. That’s when Snell did his best work, as the junior All-American carried the ball the final eight plays of the game — converting twice on third down — to keep the clock moving and put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons in Kentucky history.
Snell finished the game with 144 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. Now immortalized as one of the all-time greats in Kentucky history, Snell finished his career with 3,873 yards and 48 touchdowns. The previous record was held by Sonny Collins who rushed for 3,835 yards.
After taking a 10-6 lead at the half, Snell scored his first touchdown of the day on a 2-yard run with 12:38 left in the third quarter. Senior Miles Butler extended the lead to 20-7 with a field goal to set the stage for Snell’s record-breaking run.
That’s when the Penn State offense caught fire as quarterback Trace McSorley produced two scoring drives in under three minutes – the first a 1-yard run and the second a 18-yard pass to Pat Freiermuth to cut the lead to 27-21 with just 9:00 minutes remaining.
The Nittany Lions’ momentum finally came to a halt when Coach James Franklin sent out the field goal unit rather than go for it on fourth down in the red zone.
Josh Allen, projected as a top-five pick in April’s NFL Draft, closed out his career with an MVP performance, recording three sacks and a huge blocked field goal attempt in the first half. Allen finished his career with a school record 31.5 (career) sacks and 17 (single-season) sacks. Senior tight end C.J. Conrad also caught one pass for 21 yards to get him to 1,000 career receptions.
Kentucky finished the season 10-3, while Penn State fell to 9-4.
After the win, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, running back Benny Snell Jr. and linebacker Josh Allen spoke with reporters about the big win. Here is a recap of everything they had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:
MARK STOOPS: Sure. Just as I mentioned on the podium accepting the trophy, it was extremely important to this team, to all of us, to come home with some hardware, to come home with a trophy. This team, these seniors and, of course, Benny — you look at him as a senior because he’s been so steady for the three years he’s been here, and he’s been a big piece of it with those seniors. They’ve just done so much. It meant so much to this team and to this program that it was very important to finish and to collect the trophy and to win ten games and win a game on New Year’s Day and all those things.
Believe me, we had a great belief in our locker room. We didn’t have to do anything special, just be us. I was so proud of this team. We had so much fun, it ought to be illegal how much fun we had this week. We had a blast just being with each other and just spending time and enjoying it and taking it in. But then when it was time to go to meeting, time to go to practice, these guys were locked in, they were competitive. And you could do that with a mature group of guys that have been around for a while and we really went out and had energized practices and we were determined to get this victory, made it close there at the end.
Give Penn State credit. You knew they would fight. It’s a quality football team and well coached and you knew they would fight back.
I’m just proud of our team for doing the things necessary to close it out, and if you don’t have a physicality about you like that and you don’t have a guy like Benny, it’s hard to do because the whole stadium knew he was going to run the ball and grind out a first down or two to ice the game was critical. So very proud of the group and appreciate their effort.
Q. Mark, in Benny’s career, so many times he’s closed out games the way you did on that last drive. What was your confidence level going in at the end there and just how fitting was it to end there?
MARK STOOPS: I think it was the first run of the second half there when we got it to the second level, made him miss, hurdle the guy, and that kind of got some juice going. That really helped us.
Q. Mark, you’re sitting in between two great players right there. Tell us which one you’re going to miss more.
MARK STOOPS: They know I can’t say that. I’m going to miss them both. And, you know, really, all those guys — this morning, in the hotel pregame speech, I had to be really intentional with myself of not getting emotional because I didn’t want these guys to make fun of me if I cracked and started crying. I really mean that, because they mean that much to me and I just greatly appreciate them. We’ve had a lot of fun and we’ve worked extremely hard and come through a lot of things and persevered together and they mean the world to me.
Q. You’re talking about the players you’re going to miss, but there were players, young guys today that showed out — DeAndre Square, obviously, in linebacker spot for most of the game and then you’ve got AJ Rose behind Benny. What can you say about those players and kind of how they’ve transitioned?
MARK STOOPS: These guys set a great example and that’s the big thing. Just to set the tone for the program and what it takes and the hard work and these guys did a great example. We have very good, young kids and we’re excited to get to work with them.
Q. This is for the two players. Kind of speak to what you feel you’ve improved on the most this season.
MARK STOOPS: Just persevering through the tough times. I think we’ve always done that. It’s not easy. You just stay the course, constantly try to get better, and then, again, with great leadership, I think that makes it much easier for myself because we had good leadership on this team.
Q. Mark, it looked like there was a little altercation on the sideline and then E.J. Price wasn’t dressed at the end of the game. Can you just elaborate on what happened there?
MARK STOOPS: I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t see it. I mean, I’m pretty darned happy.
Q. How much is a game changer is Lynn (Bowden)?
MARK STOOPS: Well, Lynn is a game changer. He really does a great job. He made some very creative plays today. He’s good with the ball in his hands. We need to do a better job of making sure we find ways to get him the ball. And he’s definitely got some big play ability. (We’re) very proud of him and the punt return was huge. The play that he made on the screen (was a) very good individual play by him.
Q. Josh, what happened on that field goal block that you were able to get a fingertip on it?
JOSH ALLEN: That was the first time I felt like all season that we ran that play. We practiced it all week. Me and Q talked about it the play before. We knew it was going to work. We knew he sat real soft, that he was sitting outside, so if I got skinny enough, I was going to get through and I got pretty skinny in there.
Q. Mark, you’ve made a big, big point of referring to the team as family this year. You’ve got two guys beside you that you probably love like sons. You’ve got your family sitting down here in front of you. How intentional have you been in making that a part of the culture of the program?
MARK STOOPS: Very intentional. These guys will tell you they’re always welcome in my house, and they are. And they are like sons to me and they know that. They know how I feel about them and that’s the way I’ve always done as a coach. You know, I’m in this position to help these guys get theirs and do what they’re doing. And, again, they’re extremely special to me and my family and they’re always welcome and we have been very intentional and these guys could probably talk to that. But going back to the summer, we got together every Wednesday. We put coaches on the grill and just wanted to be intentional about spending time with each other and really uniting the group because that’s a big deal. It’s a big operation. You know, there’s 150, 160, 170 people in our building and you have to have everybody pulling the rope in the same direction.
Q. For Benny, you had a pretty cool moment situation in the third quarter where the entire UK side is chanting “Benny, Benny,” and then the next play you run it up the middle and score that touchdown. Could you just describe what that moment was like for you?
MARK STOOPS: That was the record, if I’m not mistaken. He broke the record. That’s why I was trying to get that official to give me that football for him. He broke the record on that run.
BENNY SNELL: Man, I (was) so excited. I (was) in the moment. I don’t even have words for, like, how I was feeling. I was speechless. I know that when we ran out there, you know, I knew I was like 5 or 4 yards away, and I looked at Coach Gran and he gave me that look, like yeah. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s get it.’
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. Matter of fact, we had two plays called. We were going to run it to him two plays in a row. We had thought about some other things. We were, like, nah. Benny two in a row here so it only took one.
BENNY SNELL: It was the best feeling ever when I crossed the pod line. From my past three years being here, my offensive line has been phenomenal — every single one of those guys. And the glory goes to them. I’m just blessed and very happy.
Q. For Benny and Josh, individually, what do you guys think your legacy will be? How do you think you guys will be remembered and then what do you think the legacy will be for this team?
JOSH ALLEN: I feel like we’re going to go down as the best team to come out of Kentucky. That’s how I feel.
BENNY SNELL: Easily.
JOSH ALLEN: I feel like we’ve got a lot of great players on this team. You know, we haven’t won ten games in a very long time. We haven’t beat Florida in a very long time. We haven’t broken this many records in a very long time. Just a lot of accomplishments around this team.
BENNY SNELL: For me, I just want BBN and the fans to know that this group, especially with myself, we give our all — we gave our all through practice. Even when when, you know, teams are smack talking and we’re the underdogs coming into the game, such as Mississippi State or Florida. We set the record straight that this is Kentucky football, we’re not just about to lay down. Just as a group, as a team, I feel like there’s no other team, no other legacy that is like this, what we left, so I’m very happy. I’m very happy with my team.
MARK STOOPS: I could say this on their behalf: You know, I’m not one to pat myself on the back, but for them, it’s very hard in this day and age now. There’s a lot of pressure and the things like the Florida game and all those things, they have so much information at their fingertips. You’re probably reading Twitter right now. They have a lot on their plate and they have a lot of pressure. They have to take a lot on their shoulders and you have to be man enough to accept that, look at it, go through the adversity and bounce back, and that’s why it takes seniors and that’s what it takes special guys to be able to handle that.
BENNY SNELL: Also, I want to say one more thing: With the brotherhood that we created through this team and the adversity that we faced, as well as to overcome, you know, the negative things that happened with the team — we were able to make that a positive and it gave us drive. (Challenges) such as Josh Paschal, for example, Coach Schlarman, the Maxwell family, little Marco, just things like that, those gave us the extra fight, you know, throughout the season, like, we got something to play for. And we set the record straight.
MARK STOOPS: That’s right. Shemwell, he meant, but yes. That’s very well said. That’s so true.
Q. Josh, as Penn State was sort of cutting into the lead and you guys were having to fight off that comeback, what was going on in those defensive huddles? And then, was a game like today, a week like this week, one of the main reasons that you came back, for this feeling?
JOSH ALLEN: To answer your first part, we were deciding who’s going to make a play. It’s about that time where great players step up and great players make plays, and in situations like that, somebody had to step up. So I just thought it would be me, you know. And I told everybody I was going to get that first, competing with everybody else, and we had a lot of guys step up and make big plays. That’s what we were talking about. And on the second question, this is the reason why guys come back. If you’re projected to be one of the top players coming back, I advise to come back because you could have a season like I did, become the national defensive player of the year, projected top five pick, win bowl games. I have no better feeling than right now. I feel great. Great team win. Offense did a heck of a job. Defense did a heck of a job. Special teams did a heck of a job. And I’m just living it right now.
MARK STOOPS: I have to finish that comment that John, you asked me earlier, about intentionality and all that. I do have to give credit to my wife that she was the one that put that into my ear about that team and to do that and it really was. So Chantel was a big piece of that and she always reminds me of that when I forget to mention that and I see her sitting there. So yeah.
Q. You’ve talked so much since you’ve been here about changing the culture of this football team. When you get down to the last five minutes of the ball game, the last few minutes, five minutes, I guess, with a lead, I’ve seen so many times down through the years where you bow your neck and win the football game. You run it down their throat. Do you think that’s another leap in your program in terms of change of the culture?
MARK STOOPS: Well, there’s no question that these guys change the culture. As I mentioned many times, it’s really easy to change the climate of a program. Culture is deep, deep, deep rooted for a long, long period of time. And, you know, it takes a lot to overcome and change that. And these guys did that. And, yes, by finishing games with a physicality and finding a way to win rather than finding a way to lose is changing the culture, and it comes with being physical. There’s no getting around it. It is what it is. You look at the top programs and you look around the country and, you know, it’s built on physicality. And I had a great example. And, you know, he’ll get mad at me, but my brother Bob is sitting right over here right now. And I had a chance to watch him for 20 years and watch him win a national championship in his second year. And with my father and Bob and my brother, and just so many people, I’ve had great people to follow. I’ve been blessed to be around quality people and good to have him here. And just need to try to win a couple championships to catch up to him, but at least we’ll bring home a bowl championship. THE MODERATOR: We’d like to thank Coach Stoops, Benny and Josh for their time.
JOSH ALLEN: I’ve got something to say. I’m leaving with this. You all record this. If I don’t go number one, I don’t know who is, and I stand true to that.
BENNY SNELL: Tell them what it is, boy.