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Penn State defense must step up against Kentucky’s run-oriented offense

The Wildcats' Benny Snell Jr. is a durable running back who has gained 1,305 yards on the ground, 13th in the nation. "He's obviously a quality back," Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry says.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. (26), shown running for a touchdown last month against Middle Tennessee, is a major concern of Penn State in Tuesday's Citrus Bowl.
Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. (26), shown running for a touchdown last month against Middle Tennessee, is a major concern of Penn State in Tuesday's Citrus Bowl.Read moreBryan Woolston / AP

ORLANDO — The defensive front of Penn State should have a lot to say about how successful the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions will be in their Citrus Bowl matchup Tuesday against 14th-ranked Kentucky.

The Wildcats boast one of the nation’s best running backs in 5-foot-11, 223-pound Benny Snell Jr., who ranks 13th in FBS with 1,305 yards and keys a rushing attack that averages more than 201 yards per game.

“He’s obviously a quality back, and we’ve seen our fair share of those,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Saturday. “He’s very patient. He’s a four-quarter back. He runs very hard. He’s physical; he punishes would-be tacklers.”

Snell, who is second on Kentucky’s all-time list with 3,729 yards on the ground, has six 100-yard rushing games this season and 18 in his career. His 46 rushing touchdowns are second only to Herschel Walker (49) among SEC running backs through their junior seasons. He has averaged 22 carries per game this season.

Snell’s durability is one of the keys to the game, Pry said.

“I think, over the course of a game, a lot of backs get better, but he particularly wears on your defense,” Pry said. “As you watch games in their entirety, you see guys not defending him as well late in games. So, we know it’s going to be a four-quarter battle with him. We’ve got to be physical in gang tackling, and it’s going to take a united effort to slow him down.”

As for Penn State’s defensive line, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is impressed with the unit, which has held its last three opponents to averages of 6.7 points and 254 yards.

Gran is particularly impressed with the sacks (43, 3.6 per game) and tackles for loss (8.3 per game) that the Lions have put up this season.

“First of all, their front is how they operate,” Gran said. “They’re the real deal. They’re No. 2 in the country in sacks. They’re No. 4 in the country in tackles for loss. And their front makes them go. Those front guys are really good, and they’ve got some backups that come in and are really productive.”

Snell said he noticed in film study how well Penn State controls the run.

“They’re good at controlling the run, stopping the run,” he said. “Their front, No. 99 [Yetur Gross-Matos], No. 48 [Shareef Miller], those guys go. I’ve got to make sure in protection I get a chip on those guys. I know the whole defense swarms, so they’re going to come after it.”

Gross-Matos blossomed in the second half of the season, and his 20 tackles for loss is more than the 18.5 posted by Kentucky All-America linebacker Josh Allen. Gross-Matos also has eight sacks, narrowly ahead of teammates Robert Windsor (7½) and Miller (7).

The Nittany Lions, however, have struggled with quality running backs. Five backs have rushed for more than 100 yards against them, headed by FBS rushing leader Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin with 185. Five opponents have gained more than 200 yards on the ground.

For the season, Penn State has given up an average of 168.4 rush yards per game, 70th in the nation.