UK, Northwestern Carry Mutual Respect into Matchup
Mark Stoops and Pat Fitzgerald will be adversaries come Friday afternoon. In early December, they were friendly peers picking one another’s brains.
The head coaches of Kentucky and Northwestern, respectively, Stoops and Fitzgerald knew each other only by reputation when their teams were picked to play in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Once the news was official, Fitzgerald placed a phone call to congratulate Stoops.
|Kentucky vs. Northwestern|
|Fri., Dec. 29 – 4:30 p.m. ET
Game Notes: UK | NW
Digital Gameday Program
|UK||2017 Team Stats||NW|
|21.5||Kickoff returns (avg)||18.5|
|17.3||Punt returns (avg)||7.7|
|30:51||Time of possession/game||30:29|
|41.1%||Third down conversion||35.5%|
|55.6%||Fourth down conversion||61.8%|
|425.7||Total yards allowed/game||358.8|
|162.2||Rush yards allowed/game||111.2|
|263.5||Pass yards allowed/game||247.6|
The exchange might have ended there, but Stoops decided a day later to call back.
“He was gracious enough to let me pick his brain, even about the bowl prep,” Stoops said. “We’re about to go compete against him. He was phenomenal. I knew Pat just vaguely. I knew what type of person he was, what he stood for. So for me, I felt comfortable reaching out to him and picking his brain about that.”
If you think that sounds a little unique, you’re not wrong. Stoops and Fitzgerald were excited to discover a likeminded colleague.
“When we sit in the corner office, it’s a pretty cool place to be, but it’s pretty lonely,” Fitzgerald said. “When you start to try to develop your own leadership style, the way you’re going to run your program, very few guys are willing to share over the phone or at national conventions.”
That spirit of sharing and sportsmanship has lasted into bowl week as UK (7-5) and No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) have arrived in Nashville for Friday’s game, which kicks off at 4:30 p.m. ET. It will continue beyond the bowl matchup.
“I’m going to be a huge Cat fan moving forward,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the great thing.”
Stoops and Fitzgerald will only be rooting for their own group of Wildcats come kickoff though. The sportsmanship will remain, but a game is at hand.
“We’re here to compete,” Stoops said. “Pat and I both feel, and our teams feel, as you get closer to game time, that focus, that intensity level certainly kicks up, you’re ready to get out there and play football.”
Stoops, having learned from his first bowl experience as a head coach last year, has planned the last month with that fact in mind. His goal has been to build toward the bowl, mixing in rest, development of his younger players, preparation for Northwestern and plenty of fun – both on and off the field – along the way.
“I’ve been very pleased with our team, the attitude they’ve had towards this bowl prep,” Stoops said. “They’ve worked really hard back on campus, prior to getting down here in Nashville. Since we’ve been here, they’ve really been on point.”
They’ll need to be, because Northwestern presents a stiff challenge.
The Wildcats (the ones wearing purple and black) closed the regular season on a seven-game winning streak to finish second in the Big Ten West Division. A hardnosed, veteran team, Northwestern averaged just shy of 30 points on the season and won three overtime games.
Junior Clayton Thorson, a third-year starter, triggers the Northwestern offense and threw for 2,809 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s also a threat on the ground, having run for eight touchdowns. He trails only Justin Jackson for the team lead in rushing touchdowns, but Jackson deservedly gets the lion’s share of the attention.
Jackson, a senior, is one of the best backs in the history of not only Northwestern football, but also the Big Ten. He enters his final collegiate game with a staggering 5,283 yards.
“What has Justin meant to our program?” Fitzgerald said. “Everything. He’s a couple first downs away from being the third all-time leading rusher in Big Ten history. Probably outside of Evanston and our program, nobody knows about that. It’s unbelievable. You’re talking about a two-time Heisman Trophy winner and Ron Dayne. Those are the only two guys ahead of him. That guy’s name is Archie Griffin.
“He’s irreplaceable. Once-in-a-coaching-lifetime young man. I know Saturday night I’ll be asked, How are you going to replace Justin Jackson? You’re not. That just doesn’t happen. Someone is going to have to step up and make their mark after he’s gone.”
Of course, Jackson has Stoops’ attention.
“He’s a real challenge,” Stoops said. “He’s just a complete running back, does things right. He’s explosive. He gets tough yards. He gets explosive yards. Got your hands full.”
The thing is, Fitzgerald talks in similar terms about Jackson’s Kentucky counterpart. Benny Snell Jr., just a sophomore, has 2,605 yards and 31 touchdowns, not dissimilar to the 2,605 yards and 15 touchdowns Jackson had through his first two seasons.
“Number one, as a former linebacker, when I study running backs when I was a player, you first look at the tough yards, short yardage, goal line, look at those times when you got more people in the box than the offense can block,” Fitzgerald said. “What does the back do? Every time, not only does he fall forward, he drives forward. To see that leg drive, the power and the explosiveness, it was great.”
Northwestern is accustomed to dealing with backs of Snell’s caliber, Fitzgerald citing Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. Though both games were losses, Northwestern didn’t allow either to top 100 yards on the ground. On the season, Northwestern is allowing just 111 yards rushing per game and 3.3 yards per carry.
Snell relishes that challenge, as well as the opportunity face Jackson.
“It’s going to be fun,” Snell said. “It’s definitely going to be fun. I like competition like this. I like when another back has good stats coming into a game versus me, another good back. It’s a battle of the running game. We’ll see who really wants it.”
The respect the two head coaches share has filtered down to their players. Now it’s time for them to face off.
“They’re coached very well,” Stoops said. “They’re not going to beat themselves. You have to beat them. Their players play exceptionally hard. So we’ll have to definitely be on point