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Zebras Take Over Wild Battle of Wildcats

By Matt Smith
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A bowl season that needed some life in the worst way got exactly that, as Friday’s Music City Bowl between Kentucky and Northwestern was overrun by penalties, officiating blunders and questionable coaching decisions.

Well, that was something.

A bowl season that needed some life in the worst way got exactly that, as Friday’s Music City Bowl between Kentucky and Northwestern was overrun by penalties, officiating blunders and questionable coaching decisions.

The final outcome was a dramatic 24-23 Northwestern (10-3, 7-2 Big Ten) win over Kentucky (7-6, 4-4 SEC), as a go-ahead two-point conversion attempt by Kentucky with 37 seconds remaining fell incomplete.

Kentucky had cut a ten-point deficit to one, after Kyle Queiro’s pick-six had given Northwestern a two-score lead midway through the fourth quarter, on a Stephen Johnson nine-yard touchdown run, but Johnson couldn’t connect on a potential game-winning two-point pass.

The wild finish wasn’t the story, however.

The first quarter went largely without incident, as four three-and-outs were sandwiched by a Kentucky touchdown to open the game and a Northwestern field goal. When the teams switched ends for the second quarter, the game went downhill faster than the second night of a bachelorette party on Lower Broadway.

On the second play of the second quarter, Northwestern ran a throwback pass to quarterback Clayton Thorson who caught it and ran for 24 yards to the Kentucky five. Sadly, his foot appeared to get caught in the turf on the tackle, and Thorson had to be carted off with a right leg injury. Justin Jackson brightened the mood a bit for the purple and white Wildcats, as his five-yard run on the very next play put Northwestern ahead, 10-7.

After Northwestern lost one of its best players, Kentucky was dealt the same fate on the ensuing possession. After being stopped for a loss on a running play, Kentucky tailback Benny Snell was ejected for making contact with referee Chris Coyte while getting up from the tackle.

Coyte told The Tennessean immediately after the game that “[Snell] got up and grabbed my arms and pushed them away and contacted me. That’s a foul.”

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops received the same message from Coyte immediately after the play occurred.

“The official told me that Benny grabbed him and shoved him,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said after the game.

The “shove” occurred as Snell was lifting himself off the ground. Bottom line: The contact was minimal, the call was unnecessary and it deprived Kentucky, its fans and viewers of the ability to see an outstanding player.

It only got worse for Kentucky. After another Northwestern touchdown, starting quarterback Stephen Johnson left the game with a shoulder injury late in the quarter following a hit out of bounds on the Kentucky sideline that was questionably late (Johnson returned for the second half). No flag was thrown. The bench was assessed a 15-yard penalty after the play for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing the blue and white Wildcats out of field goal range.

Given what Kentucky fans did to basketball referee John Higgins after last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina, let’s hope Coyte’s phone number isn’t publicly listed.

That wasn’t all. Northwestern also failed to avoid the wrath of the zebras. After the teams exchanged punts, Kentucky backup quarterback Drew Barker completed a short pass to Sihiem King, who was tackled hard by linebacker Paddy Fisher while jumping over another defender. It was a clean hit to the torso.

Of course, the play was reviewed for a potential targeting foul. You guessed it. It was deemed an illegal hit after video review, and Fisher joined Snell in the locker room for the rest of the game.

“I’m a big advocate of the rule. That’s not why the rule is in place,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said, holding back from further criticism.

The silver lining? The infraction occurred before halftime. Had it been after halftime, Fisher would have been suspended for the first half of next season’s opener – a key conference contest at Purdue.

Without their offensive stars, the two offenses managed just 16 second-half points, all by Kentucky. Two Stephen Johnson touchdown runs sandwiched an Austin MacGinnis field goal and Queiro’s interception return touchdown.

Fitzgerald won 10 games for the third time in his 12-year coaching career, but his team had to overcome two questionable fourth-down calls.

Leading 17-14 in the fourth, Fitzgerald called a reverse pass on 4th-and-1 from the Kentucky two-yard line that was sniffed out. Later in the quarter, leading 24-17, Fitzgerald rolled the dice on another 4th-and-1 from his own 39-yard line, with backup quarterback Matt Alviti getting stuffed on a sneak attempt. Neither time, game MVP Justin Jackson (32 carries, 157 yards, 2 TD) touched the ball.

Queiro’s pick-six bailed Fitzgerald out of the first blunder, and the two-point conversion stop did do the second time. Process be damned. It’s all about getting to the finish line. Fitzgerald spilled his drink on her and called her by the wrong name, but he still got the girl, and Northwestern heads home with an eight-game winning streak to end the season.

Stoops wasn’t without fault either, as he eschewed a traditional onsides kick attempt in the final minute, instead going for a short, pop-up kickoff that was easily recovered by Northwestern to seal the game.

“Words can’t describe that game,” Fitzgerald said.

He’s right. Like the officials and Fitzgerald’s fourth-down calls, I tried, but probably failed.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.