Despite sitting at 4-6 and facing an NC State team with eight wins and a top 25 ranking, UK found itself as a small favorite in the Gator Bowl. For most of the ballgame in Jacksonville, the Wildcats were the better team. UK had a yards per play, got points on the board in each of their red zone opportunities, and most importantly had a plus-3 advantage in the turnover column.
NC State had a higher success rate and was much more efficient on third and fourth down (7-of-14), but UK had more explosive plays while creating one more scoring opportunity. All three takeaways resulted in scoring opportunities for the offense which led to 10 points and most importantly the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The game went like most of the season has with the Wildcats relying on playmaking from the defense with a strong ground game helping the team do just enough to squeak by with a win. As we’ve done all season, here are the three plays that made a difference.
1.) Blocked Kick
After Kentucky put up their first touchdown of the game riding some explosive runs, NC State responded right back in the second quarter putting together their best possession. The Wolfpack went 43 yards in 11 plays with a couple of third and fourth down conversions creating the State’s first scoring opportunity of the game. However, a fourth-and-13 setup a 40-yard field goal attempt and Kentucky’s special teams made a play.
Tyrell Ajian slips past a block on the left side of the line giving himself a chance at a big-time play. The redshirt junior safety is able to get his hand on the football and it will results in a scoring opportunity stop for the defense. This doesn’t go in the box score as a turnover, but it sure felt like one and Kentucky immediately drove down the field to take a 13-0 lead going into halftime.
Entering the matchup, NC State was the team that made some game-changing special teams plays that led to many close wins. At TIAA Bank Field, it was Kentucky who made the plays in the third phase that helped them win the football game.
2.) Momentum Swinging Interception
Kentucky clung to a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter after the offense’s third consecutive punt to open the second half. UK was fresh off of blowing great field position and a scoring chance with some strange short-yardage play calls. It led to NC State starting their second possession in a row inside their own 20 and UK’s defense made another big play.
Bailey Hockman tries to stick the football in a small window down the sideline and does not have enough velocity on the vertical throw. Yusuf Corker plays it perfect and it results in the redshirt junior’s third career interception and another scoring opportunity for the offense.
UK would go on to get three points and extend the lead to tw0 possessions with less than six minutes remaining in the game after being stopped at the two. Brad White’s defense made all kinds of plays in Jacksonville and they earned this victory.
3.) Defense Ices It
Despite all of the plays the defense made, they still need to make another one to win it in the end. After the field goal setup by the Corker interception, NC State got a very short field thanks to penalties and would need just three plays to go 37 yards to cut the lead to 16-14 with under five minutes left. Kentucky’s offense picked the absolute worst time to have their first three-and-out and the Wolfpack would get the ball back at their own 20 needing just once score with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
The defense stepped up again.
Quinton Bohanna wins a pass rush rep to create an inside pressure on the quarterback forcing Bailey Hockman to go to his tight end Cary Angeline as a checkdown in the middle of the field. However, he totally forgets about inside linebacker DeAndre Square who is playing the middle. The junior does a great job breaking on the ball creating a pass break-up. The ball then finds Jamin Davis as UK creates another takeaway.
This time the offense cashes in on the very next play when Chris Rodriguez Jr. goes 26 yards on a split zone to put UK by two possessions with just under three minutes remaining. This defense just made play after play.
The offense went through all kinds of issues this season and that showed up on Saturday even though the team ran for 281 yards and averaged around six yards per carry. The pass game was once again non-existent and the offense could not finish scoring opportunities with points consistently enough. The team needed strong play from defense and special teams to win games. That’s what they got in the bowl win.
Timely turnovers led to scoring opportunities and it was enough to give the Wildcats another postseason victory.