The Kentucky Wildcats used their ground game to help prevail over the NC State Wolfpack 23-21 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville, FL.
The Wildcats close the season at 5-6 while the Wolfpack fell to 8-4.
Kentucky’s offense totaled 380 yards with 281 of those coming on the ground. Asim Rose led the rushing attack with 148 yards on just 12 carries. Chris Rodriguez followed with 84 yards and two touchdowns.
NC State finished with 318 yards while being limited to just 50 yards on the ground, which is near their season-low total. Quarterback Bailey Hockman completed 27 of 40 passes for 268 yards and one touchdown but was also intercepted three times.
The run-heavy Kentucky offense took advantage of a shorthanded NC State defense on their opening drive running at will inside the NC State 20-yard line. The Wolfpack defense tightened up to get a key third-down stop, holding the Wildcats to a 25-yard field goal for an early 3-0 lead on a long 16 play nine-minute drive. NC State’s opening drive would be short-lived after picking up a quick first down, Bailey Hockman was intercepted by Kentucky’s Brandin Echols setting up the Wildcats at the 50-yard line.
Kentucky was unable to convert the turnover into points as they were shut down on their second fourth-down conversion attempt. NC State took over inside their own 35-yard line, but were forced to punt after Hockman was sacked on third down ending the opening quarter.
Neither offense could get much going to open the quarter as both teams traded punts after a near NC State interception was overturned. The Wildcats offense went back to their bread and butter, which was the run game, resulting in a six-play 79-yard drive (all runs) capped off with a four-yard score from Chris Rodriguez – pushing the Kentucky lead to 10-0 with 6:23 left in the half.
The Wolfpack then put together their best drive of the half, getting down to the Kentucky 20 yard line before being held to a 40-yard field goal attempt which was no good with under two minutes remaining. Kentucky used the momentum from the miss and drove down inside the Wolfpack five-yard line before settling for a 26 yard FG to close the half with a 13-0 lead – completing the first-half shutout. It was the first time NC State was shutout during the first half all season.
NC State looked like a new team out of the locker room, with a good return from Bam Knight followed by an 18-yard catch from Devin Carter. Carter then hurt his team with a costly personal foul penalty that pushed the Wolfpack out of the red zone, leading to a 42 yard Chris Dunn attempt that was wide right crushing a potential scoring drive.
After a Kentucky punt, NC State again drove inside the Wildcats 20 yard line before being stopped on third down. With Dunn missing his first two attempts, the offense stayed on the field on 4th and 6, resulting in a nine-yard CJ Riley touchdown reception cutting the Wildcats lead to 13-7 with 2:56 left in the quarter.
The Wolfpack started the quarter with a 3rd down stop, forcing a Kentucky punt that was downed at the five-yard line. The Kentucky defense stepped up to force a three and out, resulting in another punt for NC State. Both teams again traded punts before Hockman was picked off again for the second time of the game with 8:54 remaining. Kentucky drove inside the five before being stopped on third and short, resulting in a 20-yard field goal to make the score 16-7 with 5:45 remaining in the contest.
On the ensuing kickoff, Kentucky was called for two personal foul penalties giving NC State the ball at the Wildcats 35 yard line. On the following play, another penalty on Kentucky aided a Bam Knight 14 yard touchdown run cutting the Kentucky lead to 16-14 with 5:45 remaining.
Kentucky would go three and out on offense punting the ball back to the Wolfpack with just over three minutes left. On the very next play, Hockman was picked off for the third time and was returned to the 26 yard line. Wildcat running back Chris Rodriguez took the next handoff 26 yards for the score pushing the Kentucky lead up to 23-14.
NC State struck quickly scoring with 1:10 left, cutting the score to 23-21 with a one-yard run from Jordan Houston. The Wildcats recovered the onside kick attempt and went into victory formation escaping with the two-point victory.