Despite its best efforts to give the game away down the stretch, Kentucky held on for its third straight postseason victory of the Mark Stoops era. UK withstood a series of self-inflicted errors to overcome N.C. State 23-21 in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Senior A.J. Rose rushed for a career-high 148 yards on just 12 carries, but 10 penalties for a total of 103 yards — including a trio of them in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter with UK clinging to a 16-14 advantage — kept the Wolfpack within striking distance throughout the second half after the Cats built a 13-0 lead before the break.
An interception off a deflected pass by Jamin Davis — his third of the season — gave way to a 26-yard touchdown run by Chris Rodriguez with 2:55 left. His second score more or less put the game out of reach for N.C. State, which was able to answer that touchdown with 1:10 remaining but couldn’t recover an onside kick.
“We just wanted to refuse to lose the game, honestly,” Davis said of the moments leading up to his interception. “We just wanted to keep our backs against the wall and let nobody take it from us. That’s the same thing that we’ve been preached to do all year, if the ball is in the air then it’s our ball. That was my mindset, to keep playing and ice the game.”
Terry Wilson, likely starting his final game as UK’s quarterback, finished 12 of 20 for 99 yards. He rushed for 14 yards on six carries.
Kentucky finished its season 5-6, and won a third bowl game in as many seasons for just the second time in school history (2006-2008 was the other time). This was its first postseason victory amid a pandemic, of course.
“It’s unfortunate that the season is over, but it felt good to end on that win like we did,” said Rose, who was named Kentucky’s MVP for the game. “… It’s been a long year, a tough year, due to these COVID restrictions and everything that’s going around, but I feel like we managed and did a great job of keeping players safe and keeping those around us safe.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Kentucky’s first drive ended in three points after it converted a fourth-and-1 on a Rodriguez rush to N.C. State’s 14-yard line. Wilson started 4-for-4 passing before missing short on a throw to Josh Ali in the end zone for a would-be touchdown right after that conversion, and the Cats eventually settled for a Matt Ruffolo field goal.
Brandin Echols quickly gave Kentucky the ball back after recording his first interception of the season and returning it to midfield. The Cats were unable to convert on fourth-and-1 this time, though, and turned the ball over to the Wolfpack at their own 29.
N.C. State followed with a short, fruitless drive of its own before each team had slightly longer possessions that ended without points. Kentucky broke the streak with a six-play, 79-yard streak down the field capped by a 4-yard touchdown run from Rodriguez.
The Wolfpack marched 52 yards on 14 plays but were forced to settle for a field-goal try from Kentucky’s 23; safety Ty Ajian got a finger on the ball as it went up and it fell a couple yards short as a result. A couple of big gains — a 31-yard burst from Rose and a 23-yard connection from Wilson to Keaton Upshaw — set Kentucky up in the red zone but it was only able to tack on a second field goal right before halftime.
A 30-yard kickoff return by Zonovan Knight put N.C. State at its own 32, from where it traveled to 23 before an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forced a third-and-23 try. The Wolfpack got 13 yards back but Christopher Dunn was wide right on a 43-yard kick, leaving them scoreless. Kentucky didn’t travel far on its ensuing series before punting.
UK lost Echols for the game midway through the third quarter after he and teammate Vito Tisdale collided with one another while trying to tackle an N.C. State receiver. His exit left UK without a single cornerback who started a game during the regular season; Carrington Valentine started in place of Cedrick Dort, who was “medically unavailable” on Saturday. N.C. State finally got on the board on the drive where UK lost Echols, as Bailey Hockman hit C.J. Riley for a touchdown on a fourth-and-6 pass from UK’s 9-yard line.
Kentucky stalled out at the Wolfpack’s 44 but pinned them inside the 5-yard line on Max Duffy’s next punt. They didn’t get much further before punting to Ali, who caught it at UK’s 38. UK moved into N.C. State turf on its next trip but elected to punt on fourth-and-2 from State’s 40, and it was downed at the 13.
The Cats’ offense got back to action immediately after Yusuf Corker intercepted Hockman at N.C. State’s 42. A 27-yard rush by Rose set Kentucky up at the Wolfpack’s 3-yard line but the Cats couldn’t punch it in. Ruffolo went 3-for-3 on field-goal tries with a 20-yard kick to extend the lead to 16-7 with 5:45 left.
Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and a late-hit penalty put N.C. State at UK’s 8, and Knight capitalized with a touchdown run to bring the Wolfpack within two at 16-14 less than a minute later. They halted Kentucky again but would never get closer than that margin.
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