Rapid Reaction: Defense, ground game key Kentucky in Gator Bowl win over NC State
It is a new year, but on Jan. 2, Kentucky football relied on a couple of old familiar favorites from recent seasons. The Wildcats relied on a stingy defense and a punishing ground game in picking up a 23-21 over No. 23 NC State in the Gator Bowl. The win was Kentucky’s 3rd bowl victory in as many seasons and their 5th straight appearance in a bowl matchup.
The Wildcats made it interesting, however, allowing a late TD and a quick 3-and-out to give the Wolfpack a final try. But Jamin Davis — who else? — intercepted a deflected pass to end the threat. Chris Rodriguez then raced 28 yards on the ensuing play to secure the victory.
Senior running back A.J. Rose topped the 100-yard rushing barrier before halftime and finished with 148 as UK’s 3-headed running back machine combined efficiently with a bend-but-don’t-break Kentucky defense that held NC State scoreless until late in the third quarter. From there, the Wildcats held on for another prototypical victory, the 37th in the last 5 seasons for Mark Stoops at UK.
Kentucky received the game’s opening kickoff and drove to the NC State 7-yard line before stalling out. The 16-play, 68-yard drive set the tone for the game with plenty of rushing plays. The possession ate up 9:00 of clock, and culminated in a 25-yard Matt Ruffolo field goal. Immediately following, on NC State’s fourth play, QB Bailey Hockman threw an interception. The NC State defense kept the count 3-0 by picking up a 4th down stop soon thereafter.
The teams swapped punts until Kentucky extended its lead midway through the second quarter. Kentucky needed only 6 plays to go 79 yards for a touchdown, and the drive included big-time runs from backs Chris Rodriguez (20 yards), A.J. Rose (44 yards), and Kavosiey Smoke (18 yards). Rodriguez plunged into the end zone on a 4 yard run from the Wildcat formation, which extended UK’s lead to 10-0 with 6:23 to play in the first half.
Hockman then drove NC State downfield, but the Wolfpack came away without points when Christopher Dunn’s 40-yard field goal attempt was deflected by Wildcat safety Tyrell Aijan. Kentucky then extended its advantage to 13-0 on a 26-yard field goal from Ruffolo with 2 seconds remaining in the first half. The field goal came a play after UK apparently picked up a passing touchdown only for the play to come back on a penalty for illegal formation.
After intermission, State’s kicking woes continued as Dunn pushed a 43-yard field goal attempt wide right. Following a Kentucky punt, State ended the shutout with a 13-play, 76-yard drive. On 4th-and-6 at the Kentucky 9, State eschewed another field goal try and reached the end zone with Hockmann finding C.J. Riley on a desperate scramble and pass into the corner of the end zone. The extra point drew State to within 13-7 with 2:56 to play in the 3rd quarter.
The teams traded punts from there, with Kentucky senior Max Duffy pinning State inside its own 20 on twice. After the second punt, Hockmann took a deep shot, but UK safety Yusuf Corker picked the pass off at the State 42 yard line with 8:54 to play. From there, Kentucky leaned on the ground attack, with a 27 yard run from Rose setting up the pivotal score. Kentucky’s offense stalled inside the NC State 5, but Ruffolo connected on his third field goal of the day from 20 yards out with 5:45 to play to make it 16-7.
The Wolfpack scored on their ensuing drive to pull within 16-14 with just under 5 minutes left. The Wildcats committed 2 more unsportsmanlike penalties during the drive.
The game was chippy throughout. Kentucky was penalized 10 times for 103 yards. NC State was flagged 7 times for 45 yards.
Kentucky finished the 2020 season 5-6. It is the Wildcats’ first losing season since 2015, but the 5th consecutive bowl appearance ties a program record, as does the 3rd consecutive bowl victory. NC State fell to 8-4 and will likely drop out of the Top 25.