The Wolfpack of North Carolina State enter today’s game with an 8-3 record, going 7-3 in ACC play with an additional win over Liberty. Today’s trip to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl will mark Kentucky’s fifth straight bowl appearance. Despite the somewhat disappointing 4-6 Southeastern Conference record this season, the Wildcats remain 2.5 point favorites prior to kickoff.
Explosive Plays on Offense
North Carolina State ranks sixth nationally with 62 passing completions of over 20 yards this season. The ability to create explosive plays is a corner stone of the Wolfpack offense. Left-handed throwing Bailey Hockman is completing 63.7% of his passes for 1820 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hockman will takes some sacks despite his ability move around in the pocket and the team has struggled as a whole to produce yards on the ground. If the Kentucky secondary can limit the big plays and potentially produce a turnover or two as well it will go a long way to securing another bowl game victory.
Several Outside Weapons
The primary reason that Bailey Hockman and the Wolfpack offense have had so much success airing it out down the field this season is because of the receiving corps. Emeka Emezie (#86) leads the bunch with 42 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns. He is one of three receivers that average over 15 yards per catch. Thayer Thomas (#5) is second on the team in catches at 39. Thomas has collected 483 yards and six touchdowns.
Super-sized Tight End Cary Angeline (#6) has reeled in six touchdowns on just 27 catches this season. At 6’7″ and 250 pounds he is an ultra-tough cover and will be a favorite weapon in the Red Zone. Devin Carter (#88) is another tall receiver at 6’4″ and is averaging 17 yards per reception. This is a very balanced attack through the air that can move down the field quickly.
Like what Kentucky struggled with against Mississippi State earlier this season, North Carolina State will use a 3-3-5 defensive scheme to try and create havoc against the ‘Cats. Their 85 tackles for loss this season puts them sixth nationally in that category. Five different Wolfpack defensive players produced nine or more tackles for loss this season. Kentucky must try to stay ahead of the chains and out of obvious passing situations to have success today.
Excellent Group of Linebackers
Playing within the 3-3-5 scheme these NC State linebackers have feasted on opposing backfields this season. They are led by Will Linebacker Payton Wilson (#11) with 108 tackles which is the third best number in the nation and best in the ACC. Wilson also had eight non-sack tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions on his way to being named All-ACC.
Alongside of Wilson is Mike Linebacker Isaiah Moore (#1) who has collected 85 tackles with seven non-sack tackles for loss and three sacks. At the Sam Linebacker spot, Drake Thomas (#32) has 58 tackles with 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss and three sacks. His backup is USC transfer Vi Jones (#31) who also has three sacks on the season. As you can see, this is a hungry group of linebackers who will fly around the field and try to create havoc behind the Wildcats line of scrimmage.
Dominant Run Defense
North Carolina State will look to combat Kentucky’s strength of running the football with a very stingy rush defense. Along with the excellent play they have gotten out of the linebacking corps, the Wolfpack have a Second Team All-American lining up at Nose Tackle. Alim McNeil (#29) is going to be playing on Sundays next season and has been dominant up front for this defense. The big man has produced 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Fellow lineman, and Penn State Graduate Transfer, Daniel Joseph (#99) leads the team with 6.5 sacks on the season. As Adam Luckett pointed out in his Scouting Report, opponents have just a 37.24% success rate and a stuff rate of 24.83% against the Wolfpack. That means one out of every four runs attempted either goes for a loss or no gain. The defense’s sack rate of 7.41% is also in the top-50 nationally. Again, it is all about creating havoc for this defense.