Great End To A Difficult Season
There’s no doubt navigating through the 2020 college football year in the age of COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone. However, for Mark Stoops and the Wildcats, it’s been even more so. From the medical issue which sidelined linebacker Chris Oats to the death of beloved offensive line coach John Schlarman to cancer just making it to the end was an accomplishment. The Cats did just that and got their reward on Saturday in Jacksonville as Kentucky wins the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl over North Carolina State 23-21.
“Big Blue Wall” Leads The Way
As many of you probably know offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw were let go following Kentucky’s 41-18 win over South Carolina. For the bowl game, Stoops put tight ends coach Vince Marrow in charge of the offense. As a result, the Cats threw in a couple of wrinkles such as a no-huddle attack. However, when it came down to it the Cats did what they do best, run the football.
Led by Gator Bowl MVP A.J. Rose, who ran for a career-high 148 yards, the Cats ran for 281 yards total. In addition to Rose Christopher Rodriguez added 84 yards and two touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough Kavosiey Smoke had another 45. Kentucky took advantage of a North Carolina State defense missing four of its top players. In addition, they held the ball for 35 minutes. With Rodriquez and Smoke returning in 2021 the Cats run game looks strong once again. Incoming offensive coordinator Liam Coen has to be excited by what he sees.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) January 3, 2021
Despite the strong running game the Cats had to rely on an old standby in order to pull out a win. Once again the defense led the way as Kentucky wins the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Rising To The Occasion
Throughout 2020 one big key in all of Kentucky’s wins has been forcing turnovers. If you read our game preview we said the Cats had to force turnovers to win. That held true against the Wolfpack as they picked off Bailey Hockman three times. The Cats pitched a shut out leading 13-0 at the half. It could have been even more if not for the offense’s inability to convert in the red zone. Both Brandin Echols and Yusuf Corker got theirs earlier in the game while Jamin Davis got what everyone thought was a game-ending pick. However, that turned out to be not quite the case.
Nothing’s Ever Easy
In true Kentucky football fashion, the Wolfpack made things very interesting with a furious fourth-quarter comeback. With the Cats clinging to a 16-14 lead Davis picked off Hockman. On the next play, Rodriquez went 26 yards putting the Cats up 23-14. However, Hockman led NC State down the field with Jordan Houston taking it the final two. With long-suffering Kentucky fans saying “oh no, not again” as they waited for the onside kick. But the fears quickly subsided as Allen Dailey Jr. caught the kick and the Cats ran out the clock. That led to some much deserved “celebrating” in the locker room.
Is Mark Stoops the worst dancer in the world? pic.twitter.com/kbtJDRCrj6
— Dale Saltwater (@RoushKSR) January 2, 2021
One of the biggest reasons Kentucky couldn’t put away North Carolina State was penalties. For the game, the Cats amassed 10 flags for 103 yards while the Wolfpack had seven for 45. If that wasn’t bad enough many of the flags were unsportsmanlike conduct flags as the game got very chippy at times. All totaled 11 of the 17 flags were for unsportsmanlike conduct including seven on the Cats. In fact, one of NC State’s scoring drives was aided by 30 yards in flags. While some of the flags were obvious it seemed both squads had trouble with the Big 12 officiating crew.
Looking Ahead To 2021
With the victory, Kentucky ends the season with a 5-6 record. While that is UK’s first losing season since 2015 remember the Cats played an All-SEC schedule including four teams ranked in the Top 10. The win is Kentucky’s third straight bowl victory. That’s only the second time in school history that’s happened. The other came under Rich Brooks from 2006-2008. Furthermore, the five straight bowl games tie the mark set from 2006-2010. Stoops moves to 49-50 all-time at Kentucky and 3-2 in the postseason. Remember two games into his fourth season in Lexington he was 12-26. Since then Kentucky’s gone 37-24, only proving the program’s headed in the right direction.
As if Saturday’s win wasn’t enough the Big Blue Nation got more good news as several seniors announced they were taking advantage of the NCAA allowing players an extra year. Special teams standout Zack Johnson, tight end Justin Rigg, and safety Davonte Robinson all said they were coming back. However, the biggest news came from leading receiver Josh Ali.
— Josh Ali (@_JoshAli6) January 2, 2021
Ultimately, that’s great news for Coen and whoever the quarterback is in 2021 either Joey Gatewood or Beau Allen. All the players returning and hopefully, a normal year sets Kentucky up for a strong 2021.
As for North Carolina State Dave Doeren’s squad finishes 8-4, just missing nine wins for the third time in four years. Barring any players declaring for the NFL Draft, they should be near the top of the ACC’s Atlantic Division in 2021.
Again Kentucky wins the TaxSlayer Bowl 23-21 giving the Cats a happy ending to a difficult season. Thanks for checking out this and all the other great content here at Last Word On College Football. As a reminder, we have previews and recaps of all the bowls leading up to the big one between Alabama and Ohio State on January 11th.