Kentucky Dominates on the Ground in 23-21 Gator Bowl Win over No. 23 NC State

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2021

Kentucky running back Asim Rose Jr. runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

The Kentucky Wildcats ran wild Saturday in a 23-21 win over the No. 23 NC State Wolfpack in the Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

Neither team enjoyed much success throwing the ball in what was largely a defensive battle of attrition, but the Wildcats did plenty of damage in the running game, rushing for 281 yards as a team in the victory.

The Kentucky defense was also highly impressive in holding NC State to 318 total yards and forcing three turnovers.

Although Kentucky entered Saturday with a far worse record than NC State, it was battle-tested thanks to a difficult SEC schedule. With the Gator Bowl win, the Wildcats finished the season 5-6, while the Wolfpack dropped to 8-4.


Notable Stats

Terry Wilson, QB, KEN: 12/20 for 99 YDS, 0 TD, 0 INT; 6 CAR for 14 YDS

Asim Rose, RB, KEN: 12 CAR for 148 YDS

Chris Rodriguez, RB, KEN: 17 CAR for 84 YDS, 2 TD

Kavosiey Smoke, RB, KEN: 9 CAR for 45 YDS

Bailey Hockman, QB, NCST: 27/40 for 268 YDS, 1 TD, 3 INT

Zonovan Knight, RB, NCST: 12 CAR for 52 YDS, 1 TD

C.J. Riley, WR, NCST: 3 REC for 38 YDS, 1 TD


Kentucky Rushing Attack Gashes NC State in Win

There weren't many offensive fireworks in Saturday's game, and much of that had to do with Kentucky's ability to grind down NC State with its running game, especially in the first half.

The Wildcats haven't had much success in the passing game all season, so it came as little surprise when they decided to lean heavily on their three-headed monster at running back in Asim Rose, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke.

It was Rodriguez who accounted for the first touchdown of the game in the second quarter when he powered his way into the end zone from four yards out:

Kentucky Football @UKFootball

.@CROD_JR 10th TD of the season, 16th career rushing TD @taxslayerbowl on @espn https://t.co/vcTTvZnzfv https://t.co/15d0HL4ZkV

Kyle Tucker of The Athletic marveled at how hard Rodriguez ran on that drive and in general throughout the game:

Kyle Tucker @KyleTucker_ATH

Chris Rodriguez runs hard as hell.

Tucker also pointed out that the Wildcats used Rodriguez and their other backs to exploit a major weakness of the Wolfpack:

Kyle Tucker @KyleTucker_ATH

Kentucky gets big runs from all of Rodriguez, Rose and Smoke on that drive, and C-Rod finishes it off. Running the ball is how you beat N.C. State, and that happens to be the Wildcats' one and only offensive strength.

By the time the first half came to an end, the Wildcats were up 13-0 and thoroughly dominating an NC State team that couldn't move the ball on offense or stop the run on defense.

As noted by Jeff Drummond of Cats Illustrated, Kentucky rushed for an impressive 180 yards in only one half of football:

Jeff Drummond @JDrumUK

HALFTIME: Kentucky 13, NC State 0 Cats rush for 180 yards in first half, hold Wolfpack to their first scoreless half of the season. https://t.co/u94vGHIjqq

The Wildcats didn't have quite the same level of success in the second half, and the trend of NC State reversed somewhat as well. But despite managing a touchdown late in the third quarter and then another in the fourth, the Wolfpack were unable to crawl out of the hole they dug for themselves in the first half.

In a physical and chippy game that featured several injuries and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the second half, Kentucky did just enough to hang on for the victory.

The Kentucky offense sputtered on a few occasions and had to settle for three field goals of 26 yards or less, which could have come back to bite the Wildcats, but they never trailed throughout the game. The Kentucky defense's penchant for timely plays was a big reason for that, including two interceptions in the second half.

Kentucky put the game on ice with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter on a 26-yard touchdown run by Rodriguez.

Jared Smith of FanDuel drew attention to the struggles of ACC teams in bowl games this season after NC State's loss:

Jared Smith @jaredleesmith

So I guess the ACC is the real donkey of bowl season • Ranked NC State getting beat by sub.-500 Kentucky • Clemson embarrassed in CFP • Miami/Wake lose and fail to cover • ND isn't a true member, but they lost too

The 2020 campaign wasn't a great one for Kentucky overall, but a brutal SEC-only scheduled had plenty to do with it.

By beating a ranked NC State team on Saturday, Mark Stoops' team proved it isn't anywhere near as bad as its sub-.500 record might suggest.