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Kentucky Football

Kentucky Tops NC State in Gator Bowl

January 2, 2021

It was a physical, chippy day in Jacksonville as injuries and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties racked up faster than they could be counted. After a dominant first half that didn’t quite reflect as such on the scoreboard for Kentucky, NC State came roaring back in the second half to keep the game in question until the last minute. The Wildcats came out the other side with their third straight bowl win, this one coming on a 23-21 victory in which Terry Wilson took a few knees to run out the clock in an ending that was only slightly less thrilling than last year’s Belk Bowl. 

The Cats dominated on the ground, totaling 281 rush yards to NC State’s 50. Aj Rose led the way with 148 yards, while Chris Rodriguez added 84 yards and both of Kentucky’s touchdowns. Terry Wilson finished the day with 99 yards passing thanks to 12 completions on 20 attempts. Josh Ali finished with the most catches on the day with four for 18 yards while Keaton Upshaw’s two catches for 25 yards topped the receiving yardage. 

The defense had a day, totaling 73 tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles, both of which were recovered by the offense. Jamin Davis owned the day with 13 tackles and one of the three interceptions, as well as half a sack. He split that sack with Josh Paschal while Phil Hoskins and Jordan Wright each added one. Yusuf Corker and Brandin Echols each came away with an interception, but Echols’ day ended early after a huge shot to the head from friendly fire after Vito Tisdale came in to make a tackle from the other direction. Echols was down on the field for a while and visibly shaken. 

Special teams had a few highlights as well, thanks to another perfect day from Ruffolo as well as Duffy’s exceptional punting. His best play of the day came in the second quarter when he rescued what could have been a disastrous play to step up through traffic to get the punt off and still pin NC State deep. The end of the game featured an onside kick attempt by NC State which Allen Dailey recovered for the Wildcats. 

On the downside, the game was clippy and undisciplined, with UK racking up 103 penalty yards on 10 penalties. Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties abounded on both sidelines as shoving and trash talking broke out multiple times after the whistle. After some serious unraveling in the second half, the Cats got it together late in the fourth quarter, and that recovery to be able to play some clean football ultimately gave them the chance to bring home the win. 


First Quarter

Kentucky received the opening kickoff, and immediately made use of some tempo to get the offense going. The Cats stayed mostly on the ground, hitting the Wolfpack in the teeth with all three backs. Wilson also connected with Rigg, Epps, and Ali on the drive, running clock and slowly grinding down the field. The NC State defense tightened up in the red zone as they have done all season, and after a huge 4th down conversion by Rodriguez thanks to a second effort to get to the sticks, the Cats settled for a 25 yard field goal. The 3-0 lead was the culmination of an 11-minute drive.

NC State came out throwing, and Hockman’s first two passes were completions. Two plays later, however, he threw up the left sideline and Brandin Echols came down with the ball for Kentucky’s 14th interception of the season. 

The Cats took over on the 50 yard line, where Smoke reeled off a 12 yard run, but Kentucky struggled after that. After a loss of two, Smoke picked up six to bring up 3rd and 6, but couldn’t quite get there. Chris Rodriguez came in on 4th and 1, but was dropped for a loss of two yards, his first loss of yardage in over 100 carries. NC State took over again on their own 31 yard line and 2:02 left in the first quarter.

The Wildcat defense came to play after an initial gain of 15 yards by the Wolfpack. On 3rd and 9 Jamin Davis and Joshua Paschal came flying into the backfield and split a sack on Hockman that dropped him for a loss of nine yards. The Wolfpack punted on 4th and 18. 


Second Quarter

The Cats had time for just one play before the end of the quarter in which AJ Rose picked up three yards, opening the second quarter with a 2nd and 7. Rose continued to run, gaining 11 yards and bringing up a new set of downs. On 3rd and 3 Wilson took advantage of a free play and threw deep to Epps, who wasn’t able to reel it in. NC State’s third offsides penalty of the day gave Kentucky a 1st and 10. The Cats weren’t able to sustain the drive, however, and after a gain of just two more yards the Wildcats punted on 4th and 8. Duffy faced pressure on the punt and held onto the ball, scrambling forward to find room before getting the punt off and pinning NC State deep.

The Wolfpack started on their own 19, and ran into a Wildcat offense that continued to give nothing freely. The drive lasted only six plays for NC State and went 19 yards before they were forced to punt back to the Wildcats. 

Kentucky’s drive began with a poor start as Josh Ali’s run lost seven yards right off the bat. The Cats rebounded immediately, thanks to a 20 yard pickup by Chris Rodriguez. The Cats continue to reel off the yards on the ground, as two plays later AJ Rose burst through the defense and went down the sideline for a gain of 44 yards. Smoke wasn’t to be outdone, going 18 yards down to the four yard line. Rodriguez came back in and took it to the end zone for the touchdown. Ruffolo’s extra point gave Kentucky a 10-0 lead. 

NC State’s offense came back out with 6:23 left in the first half. They found a rhythm and started moving the ball. Kentucky was unable to put a stop to the drive as the Wolfpack kept picking up just enough yardage to stay on the field. Kentucky finally closed in on their own 23 yard line and forced a field goal attempt. Tyrell Ajian got into the backfield to block the kick, and the Cats took over.

AJ Rose took off on the first play of the drive for another huge gain of 31 yards, taking the Cats into NC State territory. Wilson’s pass connected with Dailey for a gain of 17 yards, and just like that the Wildcats were into field goal range. On 3rd and 7, Wilson hit Keaton Upshaw up the middle for a gain of 23 yards that took Kentucky to the three yard line. With just seconds left in the half, the Cats took a couple shots to the end zone, the second of which appeared to be a touchdown on a spectacular ball from Wilson to Allen Dailey, but the play was called back due to an illegal formation penalty for 5 players in the backfield. The Cats settled for another field goal, and took a 13-0 lead into halftime


Third Quarter

NC State received the second half kickoff, and looked to find more success on offense. They put together an 11 play drive that went 43 yards before Kentucky closed in and forced 4th and 10 after an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Wolfpack put them behind the chains. The kicking unit came out again, and the 43 yard attempt was wide this time. Kentucky kept their 13-0 lead.

Kentucky’s offense dwindled after halftime, and the Cats only managed eight yards on five plays before Duffy came in to punt on 4th and 3. The Cats pinned the Wolfpack on their own 24 yard line.

The Wolfpack’s offense continued to find yards, this time moving with even more efficiency than the drive before. It took 13 plays for NC State to go 76 yards for the touchdown, their first points of the day putting them within one score of Kentucky. A good extra point from NC State kicker Dunn brought the score to 13-7.

Kentucky got the ball back with 2:50 left in the third quarter and started the drive on their own 42 yard line. The Cats got six plays off before the end of the quarter, picking up 17 yards to get into NC State territory before switching end zones for the last quarter of play.


Fourth Quarter

The Cats faced 3rd and 11 to start the fourth quarter, and only picked up two yards on a completion from Wilson to Keaton Upshaw. Duffy came in to punt back to the Wolfpack, this time setting them up on their own five yard line.

The Wolfpack never got their legs under them, having almost no room for error in the shadow of their own end zone. A gain of eight on three plays brought up 4th and 2 and NC State was forced to punt back to Kentucky. 

The Cats struggled to get going on the offensive side of the ball again, but on 3rd and 1 NC State was called for offsides and Kentucky moved the chains. They only managed another eight yards, however, before punting to the Wolfpack again. 

The Cats weren’t without the ball long, as Hockman threw on the first play of the drive and it was Yusuf Corker who came down with the interception this time, the second of the game. The Kentucky offense came back out on the NC State 42 yard line.

Rodriguez was in at running back to burn clock and attack the line of scrimmage, and he picked up five and seven yards on the first two plays of the series. AJ Rose then came in and found room up the sideline, taking off for 27 yards and what looked like it might be a touchdown before he was forced out of bounds at the three yard line. From there, two runs and a pass attempt left the Cats still in need of points, and they settled for a field goal. The lead after Ruffolo’s kick was 16-7.

Chance Poore’s kickoff then began an absolutely disastrous series of events for the Wildcats, as after an already chippy day, two more Cats were called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the kickoff, netting 30 free yards for the Wolfpack. Their offense started on the Kentucky 37, and on the first play, Hockman completed a 21 yard reception that took them to the Wildcat 16. Quinton Bohanna was called for roughing the passer thanks to a low hit, resulting eight more free yards for NC State. From the eight, Kentucky held up for one play with a sack from Phil Hoskins on which he got away with a facemask, and then Knight rushed the full 13 yards for NC State to score in just 54 seconds.

With their lead cut to 16-14, the Kentucky offense needed to make something happen. That didn’t come to fruition, as a total of five yards gained resulted in a quick three-and-out and punt. 

With 3:06 left in the game, NC State’s offense once again came out, this time within two points and with the chance to take their first lead. Hockman, however, continued to struggle mightily against the Kentucky defense. On the first play of the drive he went to the air again, and Jamin Davis picked him off for the Cats’ third interception of the day, bringing their season total to 16 picks. 

The Wildcat offense now had a chance from the 26 yard line, and after a last-minute timeout, Chris Rodriguez got the carry and took off, reaching the end zone virtually untouched. The quick score gave Kentucky some breathing room but left time for NC State to come back, now down to the Cats 23-14.

The Wolfpack went right to the air, and this time Hockman was more successful, connecting on all five of his pass attempts on six plays. NC State flew down the field, the only bobble coming when Jordan Wright got into the backfield for the sack. It wasn’t enough to slow down the Wolfpack offense though, and they 65 yards for the touchdown in just 1:41. With 1:04 remaining, it was time for an onside kick.

Allen Dailey recovered the onside attempt for the Cats, allowing the offense to come out and kneel out the clock. The 23-21 victory gave Kentucky their third straight bowl win, and notched a ranked win for Stoops’ Wildcats. AJ Rose took home MVP honors thanks to 148 yards on the day.

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Kentucky Tops NC State in Gator Bowl

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