The Kentucky Wildcats finished an emotional 2020 season with a 23-21 win over the No. 23 North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Gator Bowl to win their third straight bowl championship.

Here’s a recap of all the action:

FIRST QUARTER 

The Wolfpack won the opening toss and elected to defer and put Kentucky’s offense on the field first. UK quickly picked up a first down as on their second play from scrimmage A.J. Rose picked up 10 yards to the UK 39 yard-line. After NC State jumped offsides on third and three, UK kept their drive alive and crossed midfield with an eight-yard Terry Wilson run to the Wolfpack 41 yard-line. Later in the drive, the UK faced a third and five from the NC State 31-yard line and converted as Wilson found Isaiah Epps for seven-yards to the Wolfpack 24 yard-line. Four plays later, the Wildcats faced a fourth and one and elected to go for it. The decision would pay off as Chris Rodriguez gained exactly a yard for a first down at the NC State 14-yard line. Three plays later, NC State would finally stop UK on third down, forcing the Cats to settle for a 25-yard Matt Ruffolo field goal and a 3-0 lead after a nine-minute opening drive. 

NC State started their first drive of the day with a nine-yard Bailey Hockman completion to Devin Carter. They’d pick up a first down on the very next play with a five-yard completion to Ricky Person Jr. for five-yards to the Wolfpack 41-yard line. The drive would not last much longer, however, as two plays later, Brandin Echols picked off Hockman and returned it eight-yards to the NC State 49-yard line to give the ball back to Kentucky.

Set up in NC State territory, the Wildcats opened their second possession with a 12-yard Kavosiey Smoke run. Four plays later, Kentucky again faced a fourth and one, but this time could not pick up a first as Rodriguez was stopped for a two-yard loss as the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs.

Set up at their own 31-yard line, NC State started their next drive with a 15-yard completion to Emeka Emezie. Three plays later, Kentucky’s defense again made a big-play as Jamin Davis and Josh Paschal sacked Hockman to force a Wolfpack punt.

With four seconds left in the quarter, Rose picked up three yards to the UK 14-yard line as Kentucky closed out the quarter, having possessed the football for over 11 minutes.

Score After First Quarter: Kentucky 3, North Carolina State, 0 

SECOND QUARTER 

The Wildcats opened the second quarter with a first down run as Rose picked up 11-yards to the Wolfpack 25-yard line. Kentucky would move the ball 14-yards to their own 39-yard line, where on a third and long, Wilson threw an incomplete pass that was nearly intercepted, leading to a Max Duffy punt.

Looking to get on the scoreboard, NC State would start their ensuing possession with back-to-back Zonovan Knight runs followed by a five-yard pass to Trent Pennix for a first down. Three plays later, the drive would come to an end as Hockman threw incomplete on third down, forcing a punt.

Kentucky’s next drive would get off to a nightmare start as Josh Ali was stopped for a seven-yard loss. The very next play, UK would get all those yards back and more as Rodriguez ran for 20-yards and a first down. Two plays later, Rose bounced to the outside for 44-yards to the NC State 22-yard line. The big Rose run was followed by a Smoke 18-yard to the four-yard line which set up a four-yard Rodriguez touchdown run to extend the UK lead to 10-0.

Down 10-0, NC State’s ensuing possession got off to a hot start with a 10-yard Jordan Houston run and on the next play, Echols was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the Wolfpack 15-yards to the UK 46-yard line. Later in the drive facing a third and 13, Hockman found Thayer Thomas for 19-yards and a conversion to the Kentucky 30-yard line. Four plays later, NC State converted a fourth and one with a one-yard Person run to the UK 20-yard line. From there, UK’s defense stiffened up as Jamar “Boogie” Watson stopped Person for a three yards, which was followed by two incomplete Hockman passes. The Wolfpack would attempt a 40-yard Christopher Dunn field goal, but Kentucky’s Tyrell Ajian was able to block it, turning NC State away empty-handed.

After the blocked kick, Rose quickly moved the Wildcats into NC State territory with a 31-yard run to the Wolfpack 46-yard line. On the next play, Wilson found Allen Dailey Jr. for 17-yards moving UK to the NC State 29-yard-line. Three plays later, Wilson hit Keaton Upshaw over the middle for 24-yards to the NC State 3-yard line with 15 seconds left in the half. On second and goal, Wilson hit Dailey in the end zone, but the touchdown would be taken off the board as Kentucky was called for illegal formation. Instead, UK settled for a 26-yard Ruffolo field goal to put the Cats on top 13-0.

With two seconds left in the half, NC State settled for a fair catch on the kickoff and ran for five-yards with Person Jr. to take the game into halftime.

Halftime Score: Kentucky 13, North Carolina State, 0 

THIRD QUARTER

NC State opened the second half with a 30-yard kick return by Knight, setting up their first drive of the half at their own 32-yard line. On second down, Hockman found Carter for 18-yards to move the Wolfpack to midfield and on the next play, Person ran for three-yards to move them into UK territory. The Wolfpack continued to gain momentum from there as they would move inside the UK 25-yard line after a pair of Knight runs for a combined 12-yards. From there, NC State would go backwards as Carter shoved Echols to the ground and was flagged unsportsmanlike conduct. The Wolfpack would settle for a 43-yard field goal attempt from Dunn but it would miss wide left as the possession ended empty handed.

Kentucky’s first drive of the second half would begin at their own 25-yard line after the missed kick. The Wildcats offense would be unable to cash-in the missed kick as Darian Kinnard was called for unsportsmanlike conduct backing up the Cats 15-yards and killing the drive’s momentum.

After a 43-yard Duffy punt, NC State started their next drive from their own 24-yard line. The drive got off to a hot start as Hockman found C.J. Riley for 16-yards and two plays later hit Porter Rooks for 11-yards to cross midfield. Later in the drive facing a third down, Hockman found Keyon Lesane for 21-yards as the Wolfpack moved inside the UK 25-yard line to the 22-yard line. NC State would move inside the UK 15-yard line three plays later as Hockman hit Pennix for a first down. Four plays later, NC State rolled the dice on fourth and six as Hockman was able to roll to his right and find Riley for a nine-yard touchdown cutting the UK lead to 13-7. 

UK would start their ensuing possession at their own 42-yard line after a 26-yard kick return from Torrance Davis on a short kickoff. Three plays into the drive, Wilson made a play of his own on the run as he rolled out to find Epps for 10-yards and a first down to the NC State 45-yard line. The drive would come to an end with UK facing a 3rd down and 11 from the NC State 46-yard line after Drake Jackson was called for a snap infraction.

Score After Third Quarter: Kentucky 13, North Carolina State, 7

FOURTH QUARTER

Kentucky opened the fourth quarter with a two-yard pass to Upshaw, which fell nine-yards short of the first down
marker and forced a Duffy punt.

Duffy’s punt would travel 39-ya rds pinning the Wolfpack at their own 5-yard line. NC State would quickly go three and out as a third and two-run by Person was stopped short of the sticks forcing a punt.

After a 49-yard punt from Trenton Gill, Kentucky started their ensuing possession at their own 38-yard line. UK would quickly face a third and short three plays into the drive but would be able to convert as Wilson hit Bryce Oliver for eight-yards. The drive would stall soon after however as UK again was forced to punt with Duffy who pinned the Wolfpack back to their own 13-yard line with 9:02 left in the game. 

NC State’s drive would last just one play as Hockman threw a deep ball that was intercepted by Yusuf Corker, giving UK possession at the Wolfpack 42-yard line.

After the interception UK used their ground game to move into the red zone as Rodriguez carried twice for 12-yards to open the drive and then Rose picked up 27-yards, setting up a first and goal from the NC State 3-yard line. Despite needing just three-yards, UK would be unable to find the end zone but did extend their lead to two possessions with a 20-yard Ruffolo field goal to put UK up 16-7 with 5:45 to play.

Needing a score, NC State was gifted outstanding field position as both Torrance Davis and Jared Casey were called for unsportsmanlike conduct fouls setting up the Wolfpack at the 37-yard line. The fouls would come back to doom Kentucky as three plays into the drive; Knight found the end zone from 13-yards out to cut the UK lead to 16-14 with 4:46 to play.

Looking to kill the clock, Kentucky started their next possession at their own 26-yard line. After a one-yard Rose run, Wilson threw incomplete on second down, stopping the clock. Wilson was then stopped short on third down as they quickly went three and out and only took 1:35 off the clock as NC State regained possession with 3:11 to play and two timeouts.

Instead of taking advantage of Kentucky’s three and out, Hockman made a critical mistake after the punt as he was picked off by Jamin Davis on the first play of the drive giving possession back to the NC State 26-yard-line.

UK would immediately capitalize on the turnover as on the first play of their ensuing possession Rodriguez ran for a 26-yard touchdown to put Kentucky in front 23-14 with 2:55 to play.

Needing quick points, Hockman began to spread the ball around for NC State as he completed three straight passes to open the drive for a combined 35-yards to the UK 30-yard line. After a Jordan Wright sack set the Wolfpack back 10-yards, NC State was able to recover as Hockman found Rooks for 30-yards and two plays later, Houston punched in a two-yard Wolfpack touchdown to cut the UK lead to 23-21.

With just 1:10 to play, NC State attempted an onsides kick with Gill, but it was recovered by Dailey Jr. and Kentucky. NC State would use their final timeout after a Wilson kneel down on first down, but after two more kneel-downs, UK secured their third straight bowl victory as time expired.

Final Score: Kentucky 23, North Carolina State, 21

MVP: A.J. Rose

After a year of facing scrutiny for fumble issues, senior running back A.J. Rose dominated the Wolfpack with 148 rushing yards as he averaged a remarkable 12.3 yards per carry to lead the Cats to victory. 

HONORABLE MENTION: Jamin Davis

Jamin Davis capped off his breakout junior season with a monster performance as he made a team-leading 13 total tackles recorded half a sack and grabbed a fourth quarter interception to help seal a victory for the Cats.

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