For the fifth straight season, Mark Stoops has his Kentucky Wildcats in a bowl game as Saturday UK will battle the No. 23 North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Tax Slayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
Saturday’s Gator Bowl appearance will mark the second in school history for the Wildcats as they fell 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the 2016 Gator Bowl in the first-year of their current bowl streak.
The matchup with North Carolina State will be just the third all-time between the Wildcats and Wolfpack as the two teams’ last met in 1970 where UK defeated NC State 27-2 in Lexington.
Will the Wildcats finish the season with a third straight bowl championship, or will the ranked Wolfpack leave victorious? Here’s everything to know for Saturday’s matchup.
NC State Notes
Bounce Back Season
After a rough 2019 season that saw the Wolfpack finish 4-8 and miss out on a bowl game, the Wolfpack bounced back in a big way in 2020.
Led by eighth-year head coach Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack put together an 8-3 regular season that included an impressive 7-3 record over ACC foes. The team added two-wins over ranked foes as they took down No. 24 Pittsburgh on the road in October and defeated No. 21 Liberty at home in November.
By making it back to a bowl game, Doeren has now taken the Wolfpack bowling in six of his first eight years as head coach. He is 3-2 in those bowl games so far.
Skill Postion Stars
The key to NC State’s breakout year on offense has been the sensational seasons for multiple skill position players. At quarterback Bailey Hockman has filled in nicely for the injured Devin Leary as he completed 63.7% of his passes for 1,820 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In the backfield, the Wolfpack feature a two-headed monster of running backs in Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. Knight ran for a team-leading 736 yards and nine touchdowns while Person Jr. ran for 635 yards and four scores.
Finally, at receiver, NC State had four different receivers finish the season with over 400 yards in wide receivers Emeka Emezie (694), Thayer Thomas (483), Devin Carter (442) and tight end Cary Angeline (412). Thomas and Angeline emerged as the biggest end zone threats for the Wolfpack as both finished the regular season with six touchdown grabs.
With several weapons and an offensive coordinator in Tim Beck emerging as one of college football’s rising star play-callers, the Wolfpack offense has plenty of matchup problems for the Wildcats.
Despite an eight-win season, NC State had their struggles on defense and Saturday; things won’t get any easier as several key starters are set to be inactive.
Middle linebacker Payton Wilson who led the Wolfpack with 108 total tackles, will miss Saturday’s game due to injury, along with fellow linebacker Drake Thomas who made 58 total tackles and recorded three sacks during the regular season.
The Wolfpack will also be without defensive back Tanner Ingle who is suspended after he picked up his third targeting foul of the season in NC State’s regular season finale against Georgia Tech. Ingle made 33 total tackles, with 3.5 coming for a loss this season.
They will look to use their 3-3-5 scheme that Kentucky struggled with against Mississippi State to make up for three defensive standouts.
A Break From The SEC
For the first time since defeating Virginia Tech in the 2019 Belk Bowl, the Kentucky Wildcats will get a much-needed break from conference play.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the SEC played a 10-game season consisting exclusively of conference play. As a result, UK canceled games with Louisville, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Kent State and instead added No. 1 Alabama and Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels. UK would lose both of those add-on games and finish the year 4-6.
Now, they’ll get a chance to prove that their sub .500 record was a direct result of playing 10 SEC games by taking on NC State of the ACC. UK has won each of their last three-games against ACC foes, including a pair of rivalry wins over Louisville. They’ll look to extend that streak to four by taking down the Wolfpack.
The Big Dog Offense
With Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, both let go and newly hired offensive coordinator Liam Coen finishing his duties as assistant quarterbacks coach of the Los Angels Rams, recruiting coordinator and tight end coach Vince Marrow known by those around the UK Football program as the “big dog” will be calling plays for the Wildcats Saturday.
Marrow has never served as an offensive coordinator since the start of his college coaching career. Thus, wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight and Kentucky’s staff of graduate assistants and interns are expected to assist Marrow in the play-calling duties.
Regardless, expect much of the same play calling as seen with Gran as Kentucky looks to run the ball with Chris Rodriguez and A.J. Rose while rolling Terry Wilson out of the pocket as much as possible. However, there may be an extra pass or two to Marrow’s group of tight ends.
During Kentucky’s two-game losing streak in November, where they were out-scored 97-13 by Alabama and Florida in back-to-back weeks, the Wildcats had their fair share of COVID issues.
Luckily this won’t be the case Saturday as Mark Stoops reported Friday all of his team, coaching staff and traveling party tested negative for COVID twice this week and will be good to go for game day.
While NC State enters play with a far better record and a spot in the Top 25, Kentucky should be able to find a path to victory by running the football against a Wolfpack team without three of their top run stoppers.