It was a game marred by penalties, ejections and injuries, but No. 21 Northwestern (10-3) sifted through all of the hurdles to capture a 24-23 victory against Kentucky (7-6) to win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday evening. Running back Justin Jackson finished off a brilliant college career by rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns to put Northwestern on his back for the win.
Northwestern needed Jackson to carry the load after quarterback Clayton Thorson was lost to a serious-looking leg injury in the first half. Thorson was replaced by Matt Alviti after being carted off the field in the second quarter. Jackson was not alone in pounding out yardage on the ground. Jeremy Larkin got involved in a big way with 112 yards. As much as the Northwestern running game carried the way to victory, it was a big play by the defense that seemingly would help lift Northwestern to a win. Kyle Queiro‘s 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter gave Northwestern a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. It was the second interception of the game thrown by Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson.
Northwestern gave Kentucky a chance to come back, however. After Kentucky kicked a field goal to create a seven-point deficit, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald made the incredibly bold decision to go for a first down on a 4th-and-1 on his own 39-yard line. After an instant replay upheld the fourth down stop, Kentucky went to work to try and get in the end zone. A pass interference penalty on a 3rd-and-6 by Northwestern gave Kentucky the ball at the nine-yard line, and Johnson ran it in for a score.
Rather than go for a tie in the final minute of the game, Kentucky opted to go for a two-point conversion, but the pass attempt by Johnson fell incomplete. Northwestern then recovered the kickoff to run out the clock.
Northwestern has now won bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. It is also the second time in three years Northwestern has hit 10 wins, and the third time under Fitzgerald. With the win, the Big Ten improves to 4-0 this bowl season, while the SEC drops to 0-3 out of the gates. Kentucky has not won a bowl game since 2008.
Northwestern will open the 2018 season with a conference game against Purdue on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. The Wildcats have a tough draw in cross-division play with Michigan and a road game at Michigan State in back-to-back weeks followed by a home game against Nebraska. Northwestern also hosts Notre Dame next November Kentucky begins the 2018 season at home on Sep. 1, 2018 against Central Michigan before a Week 2 road trip to Florida in SEC play.