The 20th Music City Bowl might have been the wildest of them all.
In a game that featured gutsy individual performances, a pair of controversial ejections and the departure of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson with a knee injury, it came down to fractions, according to Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
Those fractions favored No. 21 Northwestern. Defensive back Marcus McShepard tipped the ball out of Tavin Richardson's hands on Stephen Johnson's potential game-winning two-point pass to preserve a 24-23 win in a battle of Wildcats at Nissan Stadium.
Following Johnson's 9-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds left, Kentucky could have tied the game with a PAT kick. But Stoops opted for the deuce and a one-point lead.
After Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald used two timeouts, Johnson had time to pick out Richardson about three yards deep in the end zone. Richardson got his hands on the ball for a split-second, but McShepard swiped up and knocked the ball away.
When Montre Hardage recovered the onside kick, Northwestern (10-3) could celebrate its eighth straight win and its third 10-win season in six years.
"I'm not sure if words could describe that game," Fitzgerald said. "Wow."
Stoops said Johnson made the proper read on the two-point throw.
"You're always going to second-guess yourself when things don't go your way," Stoops said. "We liked our options on the play and Stephen threw it to the correct (player), but we were just fractions off."
Johnson, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 257 yards with two interceptions, left the game twice with injuries. But he led two late scoring drives against a tough defense despite having little running game after sophomore Benny Snell was tossed early in the second quarter.
Snell was toppled for a 7-yard loss on a first-down play at the Northwestern 37. Perhaps feeling Northwestern should have been flagged for unnecessary roughness, Snell appeared to lightly push Pac-12 referee Chris Coyne as he got up.
Coyne threw his flag, citing Snell for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejecting him for contacting an official. Out went the guy who rushed for 1,333 yards and a single-season school record 19 touchdowns, including a 3-yard score just over two minutes into Friday's game.
"The player got up and grabbed my arms and pushed them away and contacted me," Coyne told a pool reporter. "That's a foul."
Stoops was visibly upset after the ejection, but opted for the high road afterward.
"If he grabbed him and shoved him, he deserved to be ejected," Stoops said. "But I didn't see it."
Northwestern lost leading tackler Paddy Fisher in the first half's final minute. Fisher was called for targeting via a replay review despite the on-field crew not throwing a flag after he tackled Sihiem King following a short pass.
Fisher, the team's leading tackler for the season, was ruled to have used the crown of the helmet to strike King between the numbers. Coyne declined to answer a question about Fisher's dismissal.
"Paddy Fisher's a great football player, that's all I'm going to say about it," a clearly upset Fitzgerald said.
So was Justin Jackson, Northwestern's senior running back, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Jackson rushed for 157 yards on 32 carries, scoring on runs of 5 and 2 yards in the second quarter.
His 5-yard run came a play after Thorson went down with a game-ending injury after catching a 24-yard pass from backup running back Jeremy Larkin on a trick play. Backup Matt Alviti played the game's remainder for Northwestern, completing 4 of 11 passes for 50 yards and running for 54 yards on nine attempts.
Larkin added 112 yards on nine carries as Northwestern outrushed Kentucky 333-65. But the winning points occurred with 7:49 left as Kyle Queiro picked off Johnson on the right sideline and tippy-toed 26 yards for a 24-14 lead.
That gave Northwestern just enough cushion to survive a Kentucky rally and four failed fourth-down tries, including one at its 39 with 2:31 left that led to Kentucky's last touchdown and its own failed gamble.
NOTES: Attendance for the game was 48,675, just over 20,000 shy of a sellout, on a 38-degree day. ... After suffering a game-ending knee injury early in the second quarter, Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson made it back to the sideline for the third quarter with crutches. ... Despite their first-half ejections, Kentucky RB Benny Snell and Northwestern LB Paddy Fisher will be eligible to play in their teams' season openers in 2018.