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Northwestern holds on for Music City Bowl win

By Jimmy Trodglen

Editor

Clarksville, Tenn. – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had a few anxious moments to see if a late gamble would interrupt a shot at history.

It almost did.

Northwestern gambled with a short, fourth-down run that was inches short, giving Kentucky hope in the Franklin American Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium Friday.

And Kentucky did its best to make Northwestern pay for its gamble.

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson scored on a 9-yard run with 37 seconds remaining, cutting Northwestern’s lead to 24-23.

Trying to complete a rally from 10-points down, UK went for two, but Johnson’s pass sailed incomplete and Northwestern held on for a bowl win that had its share of puzzling moments.

Northwestern closed the season with eight straight wins and finished 10-3, picking up 10 wins for the second time in three seasons. It was the first time Northwestern won consecutive bowl games, following up on its win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl last season.

“I’m not sure words can describe that game,” Fitzgerald said. “Wow. What a great job by our young men. We had to persevere through so much.”

Kentucky finished 7-6, ending with three straight losses, with only one win in its last five games. Kentucky is 2-3 in Music City Bowl appearances.

Northwestern and Kentucky each dealt with its share of adversity with both losing their top offensive playermaker and each dealing with player ejections.

Quarterback scramble

Northwestern quarterback Curtis Thorson was carted off the field after he caught a pass inside the 5-yard line on a throw-back in the second quarter. Northwestern was forced to rely on backup Matt Alviti, who completed 4-of-11 for 50 yards.

Johnson, who threw for 257 yards and two interceptions, left the game late in the second quarter with an injury, but was able to come back following halftime.

Two ejections

Kentucky and Northwestern each had a player disqualified, but no loss impacted the game more than the loss of UK running back Benny Snell.

Snell, who had 1,318 rushing yards entering the Music City Bowl, was ejected in the second quarter when the referee said the sophomore “made contact with an official” following a play. Replays showed a different opinion, but Snell was sent to the locker room, taking away Kentucky’s best offensive threat.

Snell had 15 rushing yards on seven carries, with one run resulting in a touchdown.

Later in the second quarter, Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher was ejected for targeting.

Double-stack attack

Behind the one-two punch of Justin Jackson and Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern outgained Kentucky 333-65 on the ground. Jackson ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns and Larkin had 112 rushing yards.

Jackson scored on runs of 5 and 2-yards to give Northwestern a 17-7 halftime lead.

Johnson’s 3-yard run midway through the third quarter pulled Kentucky to within 17-14.

Late roll of the dice

Kentucky and Northwestern each struggled on third and fourth down attempts. UK was 1-of-10 on third down attempts, while Northwestern was 6-for-17. Northwestern also gambled five times on fourth down, and converted only once.

Fourth-quarter spectate

Kentucky held Northwestern on a fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line, and was looking to build on its defensive stop, when Northwestern’s defense countered.

Safety Kyle Queiro intercepted Johnson along the sideline and kept his balance to return the interception 26 yards for a touchdown.

Leading 24-17, Northwestern wanted to seal the game when it was stopped on a fourth-and-1 at its own 39-yard line.

Johnson’s 9-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds left, set up the dramatic two-point conversion attempt that Northwestern turned away.

“We just lost a heartbreaker by inches,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Note

Kentucky is 8-9 all time in bowl game appearances. It was only the second time Kentucky and Northwestern had played, with the first occurring in 1928. Northwestern’s 27 wins over the past three seasons is the best three-year stretch in the program’s history.

Jimmy Trodglen, editor, Twitter@Tnsports360