Kentucky won its third consecutive bowl game after beating the 23rd ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Saturday’s game was not pretty nor was it particularly fun to watch. The Wildcats were penalized 10 times for 103 yards. Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were handed out like campus parking tickets. UK scored just one touchdown out of four Red Zone trips. The passing game failed to reach the 100-yard mark yet again.
However, none of that matters. Kentucky found a way to win. Much like it did throughout 2020, the Wildcats persevered. Mark Stoops has constructed a program in Lexington, not just a series of teams. That theory was proven in Jacksonville. Let’s take a look at how the Cats stacked up against pregame goals:
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Stay out of 3rd and 6+ situations. Not consistently. Kentucky was just 3/13 on third down. NC State loaded the box and dared UK to throw the football. Against the 3-3-5, when runs pop, they pop. Let me explain. If and when running backs break through the initial gauntlet of defenders in a loaded box, there are no other players to make tackles until the RB is 10+ yards downfield. This happened on several occasions, especially when AJ Rose carried the football. Numbers support this theory. Rose averaged 12.3 yards per carry. The TaxSlayer Bowl MVP ran the football 12 times for 148 yards.
Also, we talked about how NC State could aggravate Chris Rodriguez Jr. at or near the line of scrimmage. The Pack did just that early in the game. Rodriguez averaged 4.9 yards per carry which is close to two yards lower than his season number. The Wolfpack’s game plan was obvious. Stop number 24. At times NC State was successful. But, Rodriguez’s total rushing yards were four short of his 2020 game average.
Be better than it was against Mississippi State. Yes. Kentucky racked up 19 first downs and 380 total yards vs. the Wolfpack. Conversely, it managed just 10 first downs and 159 yards against Mississippi State. So, UK fared much better against NC State’s 3-3-5 than it did vs. the version that Mike Leach’s team ran early in the season. Credit interim offensive coordinator Vince Marrow for the improvement.
Rush for 200 yards. Yes. UK ran for 281 on Saturday. The Wildcats averaged 5.1 yards per carry and ran for two touchdowns. NC State entered the Gator Bowl ranked 6th in the nation with 85 tackles for loss. The Pack had 6 stops behind the line of scrimmage vs. the Cats for a total of minus 19 yards, seven of which came against an Ali run. As strange as this sounds, those numbers weren’t as bad as projected.
AJ Rose rushed for 148 yards while losing just one. Chris Rodriguez’s streak of no lost yards on a run play ended after the super sophomore was stopped for 3 negative yards during 17 carries that resulted in 84 yards. The Big Blue Wall was forceful at the point of attack by opening gaping holes at times. Remember, the 3-3-5 is a high risk, high reward defense. UK won the game of run game odds.
Be prepared for tempo. Yes. NC State tried to go fast, but Brad White had an answer for the vast majority of the game. The Wolfpack ran 66 offensive plays. That number is four less than its season average. Until late in the fourth quarter against prevent defense, the Pack did not string together successful plays.
Tackle. Yes. Kentucky tackled well on all three levels. There were misses, but a perfect score regarding this goal is nearly impossible. Youthful secondary members were especially efficient while taking opponents to the ground. Four of UK’s top five tacklers were defensive backs. Tyrell Ajain led the way with seven followed by Brandin Echols and true freshman Vito Tisdale with six. Another freshman, cornerback Carrington Valentine, recorded 6 stops and played his best game as a Wildcat. Linebacker Jamin Davis was spectacular. The junior paced the Wildcats with 13 tackles and recorded an interception. Mark Stoops is still waiting on Davis’ decision to stay in Lexington for his senior season or depart for the NFL. If he stays, expect Davis to receive warranted preseason accolades going into 2021.
Force turnovers. Yes. We talked for weeks leading up to the Gator Bowl that turnovers could determine the outcome of the game. It did. NC State QB Bailey Hockman threw three interceptions, all of which came during critical junctures in the football game.
Kentucky finished the 2020 season ranked 2nd in the SEC with a +10 turnover margin. It also completed the year ranked 1st in the conference and 3rd nationally after registering 16 interceptions.
Don’t be recognized. Yes. Max Duffy’s acrobatic punt aside, the special teams were efficiently quiet against North Carolina State. This meant that it did what it was supposed to do and had zero costly errors. Duffy averaged 40.4 yards per boot with three punts landing inside NC State’s twenty yard-line. Kicker Matt Ruffolo was a perfect 3/3 on field goal attempts as well as being on the money in all of his PAT attempts.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Kentucky was favored to win the football game. The Wildcats were the best team on the field. UK was more talented and deserved to win the football game. However, NC State won 8 regular-season games for a reason. The Wolfpack was a good, but not great team that feasted on bad ACC competition. To be completely honest, the Atlantic Coast Conference was simply not a good league in 2020. If this game is played 10 times, UK wins 9.
Offensive coordinator Vince Marrow took advantage of his opportunity to call plays and maximized available talent. The Cats continued to struggle to score touchdowns in the Red Zone but made up for it by Ruffolo’s perfect game. Marrow stuck with the run even after tackles for loss resulted in negative gain plays. Runs popped. The Cats rushed for 281 yards. A new play caller simply couldn’t fix Kentucky’s passing game problems during the short time allowed for bowl preparation. Terry Wilson completed 12/20 passes for 99 yards. Scheme and personnel changes are fortunately forthcoming.
Defensive coordinator Brad White is a star. I’ve said this before and I will continue to do so. NC State had opt-outs in the Gator Bowl. However, the missing players were all on the defensive side of the football. The Wolfpack entered the Gator Bowl averaging 31 points per game. White’s D held the Pack to zero first half points and 21 for the game. He did so minus four cornerbacks following the injury to Brandin Echols. Youthful defensive backs were solid against a very talented NC State receiving corps.
On White’s side of the football, the UK run defense was the story of the game along with three forced interceptions. RB Zonovan Knight was held to 52 yards off 12 carries. Knight had been a home run hitting runner during the 2020 season. His longest rush was for 13 yards. Kentucky held Knight to 4.3 yards per carry. Fellow running back Ricky Person Jr. accumulated just 11 yards on the ground. NC State totaled a lowly 77 rush yards for the game. That mark was an accomplishment and greatly impacted the game’s final score.
2020 was tough. The list of adversities that this team had to face and overcome was long. The Gator Bowl was a fitting tribute to a senior class that won three consecutive bowls. That group played in five postseason games in a row. There are far too many accomplishments to name for Drake Jackson, Boogie Watson, and the other elder statesmen that played their final game in Jacksonville.
However, Kentucky will be a new team in 2021. Liam Coen will take over an offense that finished last in the SEC in passing yards and total yards. UK averaged 21 points per game. He will be tasked with evaluating and implementing personnel that fit his system. The future is bright. Change is exciting.
Zero opt-outs for the Gator Bowl. As of now, four seniors announced that they will be returning for another season with more names to come. Eddie Gran congratulated Mark Stoops after the game. Folks, Mark Stoops has developed a cultured and well-grounded program in Lexington, not merely a string of teams. The job that Stoops has done during his tenure as the leader of the Wildcat football program is nothing short of spectacular when compared to his predecessors. Kentucky finished the year 5-6 with an offseason that promises to see new beginnings and welcome back familiar faces.
Kentucky won the Gator Bowl. Preparation for 2021 begins today. Kentucky Football’s foundation is on solid ground. Doubt me? Take a look at the Joe Craft Football Training Center lobby. UK’s collection of hardware has exponentially grown during the Stoops era. Bring on the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks.