Bowl season has arrived and Kentucky will be making the trip down to Jacksonville again for the Gator Bowl. For the second season in a row, UK will be facing an ACC opponent that is fresh off an 8-win season and played some inspiring ball down the stretch for a head coach that looked like he could be approaching hot seat territory.
This year’s 76th meeting of the Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field will be a matchup of two teams with very similar rosters according to the 247 Sports team composite rankings with UK checking in at No. 26 and NC State sitting at No. 33. However, one team was able to win close games and the other wasn’t which led to the difference in the overall records.
Nuts and Bolts
After six seasons under Tom O’Brien that ended with three consecutive bowl trips, the NC State administration decided to move in a different direction after the 2012 regular season. The recruiting results had been really disappointing while the Wolfpack felt just one top 25 finish was just not acceptable due to their location and significant financial investment in the program.
A search that lasted just one week officially ended when State hired Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren. The former Wisconsin defensive coordinator under Bret Bielema went 23-4 with a couple of MAC titles in DeKalb that produced Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch at quarterback and a BCS bowl appearance in 2012. NC State rolled with Doeren over Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris as they looked to upgrade their recruiting.
Despite that recruiting focus in the search, the Wolfpack have yet to bring in a top 25 class under Doeren and have had just one rank in the top-30 in seven seasons. However, his staff has shown some really good development skills turning mid three-star Bradley Chubb into an All-American and top-five pick. After a bad start, Doeren has led the Wolfpack to six bowl games in the last seven seasons, but the big year has alluded the program.
With NFL draft pick Ryan Finley at quarterback, Eli Drinkwitz calling plays and a ton of NFL talent on defense there were opportunities to bust through in 2017-18. NC State went 18-8 during this window, but the 2017 team lost a bunch of close games while the 2018 squad benefitted from a really bad ACC. Therefore, the program had just one top 25 finish and the bottom fell out in 2019 as they lost Finley and Drinkwitz on top of bad injury luck leading to the worst year of Doeren’s tenure.
It was viewed as a must win year for Doeren in 2020 and the team delivered. NC State finished 8-3 this season with seven conference victories and a 4-1 record in one possession games. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck has managed quarterback injuries and made the offense competent while Tony Gibson’s 3-3 stack has excelled thanks to a superstar at nose and two very good inside linebackers. Now things are looking up in Raleigh, but the emergence of Mack Brown at North Carolina has hurt the in-state recruiting efforts.
This will be just the third meeting ever between the two programs with the series tied at 1-1. UK won the most recent meeting in 1970 with a 27-2 victory. This is set to be NC State’s 33rd bowl appearance and they are 17-14-1 in the postseason. This is going to be Kentucky’s 20th bowl appearance and the Wildcats are 10-9 in the postseason.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a two-point favorite with a total of 50.5. That’s a projected final score around 26-24. This will be the first time under Mark Stoops that Kentucky is a favorite in the postseason. UK is 4-5-1 ATS this season while NC State is 7-4. The under is 6-4 in UK games while it is 4-7 in NC State games.
Tim Beck has been all over the place in his coaching career. The Youngstown, Oh. native got his first offensive coordinator gig working for Bo Pelini at Nebraska as he was promoted prior to the 2011 season. He called plays the next four years until Pelini was fired despite a 67-27 record in seven years. From there, Beck would move over to Ohio State replacing Tom Herman on Urban Meyer’s staff for two years. After that, Meyer would want to make a change and Beck would join Herman at Texas. At both places, Beck would either have to split or had play-calling duties stripped at the pair of blue blood programs. He was pushed out the door after three seasons in Austin and that landed him in Raleigh.
Beck is a seasoned vet and his offense this season at NC State proves just that. The Wolfpack do a lot of different things from a dose of inside zone with RPOs tagged off it combined with an outside zone game out of the pistol to get the play-action game rolling. They mix in some tempo and have plenty of gadget plays they can throw out at any moment. They rank just 59th in SP+’s adjusted offensive rankings, but Beck has done a tremendous job with this unit in year one.
Devin Leary was a blue-chip recruiting win for the Wolfpack in the class of 2018 out of New Jersey and the program had a lot riding on the redshirt sophomore. Leary started three games for the Wolfpack and they played pretty well putting up 33 points per game as he averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and threw eight touchdowns. However, he was lost for the season in the win over Duke on October 17th and the team has gone to southpaw Bailey Hockman (No. 16).
The former Florida State quarterback came to NC State from junior college and really struggled in two starts last season. He has started eight games this season and has been playing good football. Beck is calling plays to his strengths and it has led to some good offense.
Hockman is putting up over eight yards per attempt and has played a big role for a passing game that ranks eighth nationally with 62 completions over 20-plus yards. The lefty takes his fair share of sacks and has a modest 44.16% pass success rate, but he’s been a competent starter and can make some plays with his legs. This has been an excellent coaching job to get this out of a quarterback with some limitations.
The biggest strength of the offense happens to be on the perimeter and the receiving corps are why the offense has been so effective passing the ball this season. Top wideout Emeka Emezie (No. 86) has 122 career receptions and will be used at both the X and Z wideout spots. He leads the team with 65 targets and is averaging 16.52 yards per catch and will be an NFL Draft pick. The senior is having a career season.
Joining Emezie on the outside is 6-4 wideout Devin Carter (No. 88) and the redshirt sophomore is averaging 17 yards per catch with a 58.54% success rate. He is a future star. In the slot, former walk-on Thayer Thomas (No. 5) is second on the team with 39 receptions and has a 58.18% success rate. His backup is true freshman blue-chipper Porter Rooks (No. 14) who is going to be a big time player for the program in the future. However, USC transfer Cary Angeline (No. 6) might be the best of the bunch at tight end.
The 6-7, 250-pound tight end is the most efficient player on the offense with a 71.43% receiving success rate with nine touchdowns in just 35 targets. He is a monster to deal with in the red zone and is a guy the offense will use all over the place. You must realize where he is at all times. This is a very balanced receiving corps that will challenge Kentucky’s pass defense.
At running back, this coaching staff was able to pull off significant recruiting wins in its home state in back-to-back classes landing blue-chippers Ricky Person Jr. (No. 8) and Bam Knight (No. 7). This duo was expected to be the focal point of the offense in what should be a nice one-two punch. However, NC State has a thing going on where the best back isn’t getting the majority of the touches.
Person (141 carries): 4.5 yards per rush, 35.46% success rate, 12.06% explosive rush rate, 20.57% stuff rate
Knight (131 carries): 5.62 yards per rush, 48.09% success rate, 17.56% explosive rush rate, 9.16% stuff rate
This duo is combing to record 24.7 carries per game, but way too many of the rushes are going to Person. The running backs are heavily used in the pass game with 47 receptions this season, but Knight should be getting more work.
In the trenches, NC State has a solid but not great offensive line. The unit averages 306 pounds along the line and are anchored by left tackle Ickey Ekwonu. The sophomore was a Freshman All-American last season and a second team All-ACC selection this year. At center, redshirt junior Grant Gibson has started 23 games in a row while left guard Joe Sculthorpe was a third team All-ACC player. This is a unit that is not great at one particular thing, but they avoid bad plays for the most part and are a solid offensive line.
When it comes to finishing drives, NC State is putting up 4.52 points per scoring opportunity. That is a very average number which is important to keep in mind because this offense has only scored one touchdown outside of 40-plus yards despite having a ton of big plays in the pass game. They’ve avoided terrible outings, but this is not a great offense at finishing drives.
Tony Gibson is another coordinator who has been around for a very long time. The defensive coach was an assistant for Rich Rodriguez for 11 years working at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona. He returned to Morgantown to run the defense for Dana Holgorsen from 2014-18. Dave Doeren hired him in 2019 and after just one season he was promoted to defensive coordinator and his 3-3 stack has produced big time for the Wolfpack in 2020.
NC State excels at creating havoc and their 85 tackles for loss recorded ranks sixth nationally. This is a defense that wants to confuse you with odd looks and stunts that will hopefully allow them to produce negative plays at a pretty big rate. That happened in 2020 with five players recording at least nine tackles for loss in just 10 games. That is getting it done.
The strength of this defense is in the front six and redshirt sophomore Payton Wilson (No. 11) leads the way from his Will linebacker spot. The former top-100 recruit has recorded 108 tackles which led the ACC and ranks third nationally. He has eight non-sack tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. He was an All-ACC selection and is one of the best linebackers in college football.
His running mate isn’t too shabby either as Mike linebacker Isaiah Moore (No. 1) has 85 tackles with seven non-sack tackles for loss and three sacks. At Sam, Drake Thomas (No. 32) has 58 tackles with 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss and three sacks. His backup is USC transfer Vi Jones (No. 31) who also has three sacks. These guys make plays all over the field and have been one of the better linebacker corps in college football. They get plenty of help at the line of scrimmage.
It all starts at the point of attack and at nose NC State has one of the best in college football. Alim McNeill (No. 29) was another All-ACC selection for this defense and the former blue-chip recruit has already declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. At 6-2 and 320 pounds, the second-team All-American anchors the point of attack and starts everything for the defense.
Highest-graded run-defenders in College Football
1. Myles Murphy, Clemson – 92.2
2. Alim McNeill, NC State – 92.1
3. Mike Rose, Iowa St – 91.1
4. Jon Rhattigan, Army – 90.9
5. Nick Anderson, Tulane – 90.7 pic.twitter.com/YkQlp6HuLa
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) December 12, 2020
To the side of McNeill you can find Penn State grad transfer Daniel Joseph (No. 99) who leads the team with 6.5 sacks. Meanwhile, his backup Terrell Dawkins (No. 0) has recorded 4.5 non-sack tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Wolfpack will used about 6-7 bodies on their three down and this group has played well all season.
Due to the play the are getting from this front, this group has been dominant against the run. Opponents have just a 37.24% success rate and a stuff rate of 24.83%. Essentially one out of every four runs attempted either goes for a loss or no gain. The defense’s sack rate of 7.41% is in the top-50 nationally and this group will be difficult for UK’s offense to deal with.
The talent of the defense can be found in the front, but not so much in the secondary. The Wolfpack have only one high three-star in their starting lineup while the rest of the players were not highly thought of on the recruiting front. Tyler Baker-Williams (No. 13) plays the important nickel position for this defense and Gibson will utilize him often in the box. The junior and former low-three star recruit has a team-high eight pass break-ups and 56 tackles. It is a small secondary with both safeties being listed at 5-10, but corners Cecil Powell (No. 4) and Shyheim Battle (No. 25) provide some length on the outside with both being 6-foot tall. NC State is allowing a 43.97% pass success rate and seven yards per attempt as more success can definitely be found through the air.
When scoring opportunities arrive, this defense really tightens the screws. NC State is allowing just 4.03 points per scoring opportunity and in a regular season that should rank in the top-30 nationally. This is just a solid defense with no real weakness and the ability to consistently create negative plays. However, big plays can be found as they have allowed four touchdowns from 40-plus yards out this season. They aren’t afraid to gamble.
Special Teams Breakdown
NC State is damn good at the third phase. It all starts with placekicker Christopher Dunn (No. 32). The junior is 12-of-15 on the season and 4-of-5 from 40-plus. In the punt game, the Wolfpack rank just 87th nationally in net punting average at 37.46 yards, but Trenton Gill (No. 99) is putting up nearly 45 yards per attempt. Big plays have been there for opposing punt returners so the chance to impact the game can be there for Josh Ali.
In the return game, Thayer Thomas is excellent punt returner who is putting up double-digit yards. Bam Knight is used in kickoff returns and is averaging over 26 yards per attempt with one return touchdown. On top of all of this, the Wolfpack have returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and a blocked field that won them the game against Liberty.
Special teams have been part of State’s winning formula and Kentucky must match them in the third phase to have a chance in Jacksonville.
Keys to Victory
- There is really no hiding from the fact that NC State’s traditional run defense is excellent. The Wolfpack produce a ton of tackles for loss and outside of North Carolina no one has been really been able to get the ground game amped up. UK’s offensive line may be the best they’ve seen all season and Chris Rodriguez Jr. is very good, but UK needs help from the quarterback position. QB run has given this defense some issues and the Wildcats will need it at TIAA Bank Stadium to consistently have some success.
- At their core, Kentucky wants to be a bend-but-don’t break defense that is able to rush the passer with four in passing downs. However, UK ranks in the 100s nationally when it comes to sack rate while foes in the last month of the season were able to find big plays in the pass game. In this matchup, NC State lives off chunk pass plays but has had issues with pass protection. Kentucky must get back to eliminating the big play and can hopefully find some success in getting the quarterback on the ground.
- There’s no real hiding from the fact that the secondary is NC State’s weakness on defense. The Wolfpack rely on their front to make a ton of plays in order to take pressure off of a young secondary that starts three underclassmen. This isn’t a super talented group with two former low three-star recruits starting. Kentucky will not be physically outmatched and could have a talent advantage in an isolation moment or two. The receivers must step up and make some plays for the offense.
- NC State has made some game-changing plays on special teams this year and that has to be something Kentucky avoids in Jacksonville. The third phase has plagued UK in big moments this season and that can’t happen in the bowl game. Quite often in the postseason you will see fake punts and kicks. Kentucky must make sure those don’t hurt them in a close game.
- Dave Doeren has made sure gadget plays are a heavy part of the offense in his football program. This year is no different as the Pack are not afraid to get creative. This is even more relevant in a bowl game where anything can happen. UK must play disciplined ball and not get burned by a trick play.