Nittany Lions Comeback Falls Short to Kentucky in VRBO Citrus Bowl
ORLANDO, Fla. – It was a hard-fought battle on the field of Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, but ultimately, the twelfth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions came up just short, as they fell to the fourteenth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 27-24, in the 2019 VRBO Citrus Bowl.
Penn State came into the game looking for its third straight 10-win season, as well a positive way to cap off the careers of quarterback Trace McSorley and 20 other seniors. Meanwhile, Kentucky was looking for its first bowl game win since 2008 as well as its first 10-win season since 1977.
The Nittany Lions fell behind early, as special teams woes in the first half allowed Kentucky to jump out to a 10-0 lead. A failed fake punt on Penn State’s first offensive drive set up a 28-yard field goal attempt, while a 58-yard punt return touchdown by Lynn Bowden Jr. near the end of the first quarter extended the Wildcats’ lead to double digits.
Eventually, Penn State got on the board thanks to a 41-yard reception by wide receiver KJ Hamler, followed by a 1-yard touchdown reception by tight end Nick Bowers, but a 36-yard field goal attempt blocked by Kentucky’s Josh Allen prevented the Nittany Lions from tying the score by halftime.
“We had opportunities to make plays,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “Really, the same things that troubled us throughout the season troubled us here again today – dropped balls, missed opportunities… so that’s really kind of the story of the game.”
Penn State’s struggles continued into the third quarter, as Kentucky added 17 points to its lead, thanks in large part to junior running back Benny Snell. Snell, who was named the MVP of the game, rushed for two touchdowns and 144 yards, breaking the Kentucky all-time rushing record in the process.
The Nittany Lions’ troubles were only aggravated when McSorley left the game limping. The injury was originally reported as a broken foot, though according to McSorley, the severity of the injury is “unclear right now.” But the injury did not prevent McSorley from re-entering the game and leading his team to 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
“I wasn’t going to go out – they would have to take my badge off for me,” McSorley said. “I was going to be playing. I’ve been through too much. This team’s been through too much for it to be a little pain deal.”
The Nittany Lions came into the fourth quarter roaring, as back-to-back touchdown drives capped off by a 1-yard McSorley run and an 18-yard Pat Freiermuth reception put Penn State within striking distance with nine minutes remaining.
After another defensive stop, Penn State embarked on another red zone drive, but was stopped at the Kentucky 14-yard line. Facing fourth-and-7 with only 4:12 left to play in regulation, coach Franklin elected to kick the field goal instead of keeping the offense on the field. The decision brought the game within three, but ultimately, Penn State’s defense could not stop Snell and the Wildcats, as the offense received the ball with only one second remaining on the clock.
Franklin defended his decision to take the points instead of trying to convert the fourth down.
“It was really coming down to how close we could get it to fourth-and-short,” Franklin said. “As well as our defense had been playing all day long and with us having three timeouts left, we were either going to have to score in that situation if we went for it, or we were going to have to kick a field goal.”
“Obviously, when you don’t stop them and they run four-minute offense and they’re able to get a first down and burn timeouts, it looks like you should have went for it in the earlier situation,” Franklin continued. “But it really comes down to executing. We didn’t execute.”
Penn State finishes the season 9-4 with the loss. Now, the Nittany Lions face the offseason and will have to adjust to life without the senior McSorley. But McSorley himself believes the team has the potential to be just fine without him.
“I don’t want to put a ceiling on these young guys because I really think they can go as far as they want to,” McSorley said. “I’m excited to watch what these guys are going to do, and I’m excited to see where the leaders of those young guys are going to be able to carry this team.”
Finally, Franklin addressed the legacy McSorley has left at Penn State.
“When you have a player like Trace that’s done it the right way both on and off the field, it sets the tone for the young guys, and they have so much respect for him,” Franklin said. “Trace will be remembered for a long time, not only with our fan base but also with the people in our locker room and the people on our team.”
DJ Bauer is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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