NC State's close-game luck couldn't save it against Kentucky in the Gator Bowl, as the Wolfpack lost 23-21 and closed the year at 8-4 (7-3 ACC). Here are five takeaways from the final game of the season:
QB controversy no more
Redshirt junior quarterback Bailey Hockman surprised everyone this year. Under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck, Hockman flourished in impressive outings with a staggering improvement in completion percentage and a renewed dedication to taking care of the ball.
Facing the best defense he had seen all year, a Kentucky Wildcats unit that led the SEC in interceptions, Hockman threw three. The first was a missed read of the defensive coverage, the second a poor underthrow and the third a bad decision.
Even ignoring his mistakes, Hockman was at best average with a 27/40, 268 yard, one TD day when NC State needed him to win them the game. To be the guy, you've got to light it up against great competition when the team can't get anything else going.
If you didn't remember, Saturday was a reminder that Hockman is a backup playing for an injured starter. This team is redshirt sophomore Devin Leary's.
Slot receivers struggle
Between the quarterback, the coordinator and Kentucky's defensive scheme, NC State's slot targets were made virtual non-factors. The two most reliable receivers on the roster, redshirt junior Thayer Thomas and redshirt senior Cary Angeline, combined for just four targets resulting in three catches and 46 yards.
If you thought the offense lacked explosiveness, that's why, because NC State's vertical threats couldn't make plays down field. Sending off the NFL-bound Angeline with a catchless game isn't ideal, but for the perennially underutilized tight end, it's poetic.
NC State has a young roster, and that's reflected in the amount of penalties it puts up game in and game out. The Wolfpack ranks a putrid 114th in the country in penalties per game, and I suspect if penalty-gifted first downs were tracked, it may rank even worse.
There were four such penalties on Saturday, along with four unsportsmanlike fouls. While Kentucky was often the aggressor, evidenced by its seven unsportsmanlike penalties, three times NC State players reacted and cost the Wolfpack 15 yards as the unsportsmanlike penalties offset.
For now the flags aren't much of a problem. They should go away as the team gains more experience, but it's something to watch next year.
O-line injuries prove too much
Comparing the two team's stats, the two offenses overall look very similar. First downs are equal, yards per play are comparable, even yards per pass are comparable, but a gulf exists in the two teams' yards per rush.
The Wildcats rushed for 5.9 yards per carry while the Wolfpack averaged just 1.9, which hamstrung the offense. While it would've had a tough task taking on an SEC defensive line regardless, injuries on the offensive line are the culprit.
Already short-handed, graduate tackle Justin Witt and redshirt junior center Grant Gibson suffered injuries that made them leave the game. At the end of the season, just two starters remained healthy. For the offensive line, the offseason couldn't come soon enough.
Defensive depth on display
With four starters out on defense, that side of the football had its work cut out for it, and especially their replacements. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle C.J. Clark, sophomore linebacker Jaylon Scott, redshirt junior linebacker Vi Jones and redshirt sophomore cornerback Isaac Duffy got the nod Saturday, and each made their presence felt.
Clark was solid in the middle, though he didn't fill up the stat sheet. His three tackles don't tell the whole story, but Clark did his job at the point of attack.
Jones nearly blocked his fourth kick of the year Saturday, foiled by a nifty move by Kentucky punter Max Duffy. Playing on the strong side, Jones is the coverage linebacker for the defense and didn't make a huge impact in the run game, but he did record four tackles and a TFL.
Scott struggled to fill gaps at times, especially when Kentucky pulled the backside guard and tackle, with more than a few long runs broken as a result. Still, he had seven tackles and a TFL, and he'll be a key backup moving forward.
Saving the best for last, Duffy put up a team-leading, 13-tackle day. He added in a TFL and a forced fumble as well and held up as the last line of defense.
None of the four completely replaced the starter's production, but each did a fine enough job. Having reserves like these returning next year bodes well for 2021's defense.