NASHVILLE — As Benny Snell goes so does Kentucky. The Wildcats nearly proved they could win without their standout running back, but came up short despite a late rally in a 24-23 loss to Big 10 member Northwestern in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday.
Snell was ejected and disqualified from the game after making illegal contact with an official following a running play in the second quarter. Already one man down after linebacker Denzil Ware’s suspension from the team earlier this week, Snell’s disqualification gave the Wildcats another hurdle to overcome in their second straight postseason appearance.
“I’m very proud of this football team and I’m proud of the way we fought back, competed and put ourselves in a position to win this game,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “We came up inches short and that hurts. I hurt for the players more than anything because they laid it on the line and competed … sometimes you come up yards and inches off and that was the case today.”
The loss was the fourth consecutive postseason setback for Kentucky, which hasn’t won a bowl game since posting a 35-28 win over Florida State here in 2007. In its first bowl appearance under Stoops, the Wildcats lost to Georgia Tech (33-18) in the TaxSlayer Bowl nearly a year ago in Tampa. Kentucky is now 8-9 in the postseason.
Snell finished with 15 yards rushing on six carries and scored one touchdown before his ejection and said his “passion for the game” got the most of him during the second quarter.
“I don’t feel like I did anything and I didn’t need help getting up (off the ground),” Snell said afterward. “I’ve got a strong passion for the game and like playing football.”
Following the play, Stoops received an explanation from the official.
“I didn’t see it at all, but the official told me that Benny grabbed him and shoved him,” Stoops said. “If Benny grabbed him and shoved him, then he deserved to be ejected.”
Official Chris Coyte said he was "on top of the play" and said the contact with Snell was not incidental.
"The player got up and grabbed my arms and pushed them away and contacted me," Coyte told pool reporter Adam Sparks. "That’s a foul.”
Without Snell in the lineup for the final three quarters, Kentucky used its passing game to offset its rival Wildcats, who reverted to a running attack after losing its starting quarterback to a knee injury in the second quarter.
Kentucky signal-caller Stephen Johnson, largely responsible for the Wildcats’ success during the past two seasons, nearly delivered his heroics again, but his pass on a two-point conversion following his own 9-yard touchdown run was tipped by a Northwestern defender in the end zone.
Although a made point-after attempt would have tied it, Stoops chose to go for two points and the win instead of prolonging a contest that lasted nearly four hours.
“I’m good with it, and to be honest with you, if I had it to do over again, of course, I would,” Stoops said. “You’re always going to second-guess yourself if it doesn’t work, but we felt very good about the play. We had options and Stephen went to the correct option and the look we had. We had the look we wanted and we were fractions off. If we didn’t feel like we couldn’t execute that play, we wouldn’t have done it.”
Johnson completed 19-of-36 passes for 257 yards, while rushing for two scores in his collegiate finale. Johnson completed passes to nine different receivers, including five for 89 yards to Tavin Richardson.
Northwestern, which lost starting quarterback Clayton Thorson to a knee injury in the second quarter on a gadget play, went with the run. Kentucky settled with the pass, resulting in an unexpected thrilling finish, especially following Snell’s departure early in the first half.
Northwestern’s record-breaking running back Justin Johnson and sidekick Jeremy Larkin combined for 269 yards rushing and two touchdowns, which proved to be enough to hold off Kentucky.
“We came in here to compete and win the game,” Stoops said. “We came up short and that’s tough.”