The No. 23 NC State football team came into its Gator Bowl matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats without several key defensive players and found itself down 13 at halftime, but battled back in the second half only to fall just short in a 23-21 loss to end the season in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Wolfpack (8-4, 7-3 ACC) outscored the Wildcats (5-6, 4-6 SEC) 21-10 in the second half and had several opportunities to take the lead, but turnovers and missed opportunities plagued any hopes of mounting a comeback win and securing the program’s third nine-win season in the last four years.
“It was a great football game,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “I’m proud of the way we fought back in the second half and had multiple chances to get it back and get a lead.”
The Wildcats got on the board first after a long nine-minute opening drive resulted in a field goal to make the score 3-0. The Pack’s first drive ended in an interception thrown by redshirt junior quarterback Bailey Hockman with the ball on the NC State 41-yard line to give the Wildcats good field position. On the ensuing Kentucky drive, the Wildcats got down to the NC State 29-yard line and attempted to go for it on fourth down but were denied a first down as the Wolfpack defense came up with a big stop.
The Pack’s next two drives ended in punts, and the Wildcats went 79 yards on a six-play drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown run to make the score 10-0. The NC State offense seemed to gain some momentum on the next drive, getting down to the Kentucky 23-yard line, but junior kicker Chris Dunn had a 40-yard field goal tipped at the line, keeping the Pack off the board. Then, the Wildcats kicked a field goal of their own just before halftime to take a 13-0 lead at the break.
NC State received the second half kickoff and took the ball down the field again, only for Dunn to miss his 43-yard field goal attempt. The Pack was able to get a stop on the next Kentucky possession, and finally got on the board when Hockman delivered a touchdown pass to graduate receiver C.J. Riley on fourth down, making the score 13-7.
On 4th down, QB @BaileyHockman scrambles and finds @CJ_Riley19 in the back of the end zone to get the Pack within a score at 13-7 late 3rd quarter.Watch: https://t.co/QvzkrMlOgT pic.twitter.com/wgQDf1ELaq— NC State Football (@PackFootball) January 2, 2021
The next few drives ended in punts before Hockman threw his second interception with 8:54 left in the fourth quarter when the Pack had the ball at its own 13-yard line. The Wildcats turned that miscue into a field goal, making the score 16-7. A series of penalties by Kentucky on the next NC State drive helped move the ball down the field quickly for the Pack, which scored on a 13-yard run by sophomore running back Zonovan Knight to make the score 16-14.
The Pack got another stop on the next Kentucky drive, setting up a potential go-ahead drive with 3:11 left, but those hopes quickly faded as Hockman threw his third interception of the game on the first play of the drive. The Wildcats scored a touchdown on the very next play, going up 23-14 with 2:55 left.
NC State drove down the field on the next drive and scored on a 2-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Jordan Houston, his second of the season, to make the score 23-21 with 1:10 left. Down by two with just one timeout left, the Pack needed an onside kick recovery to keep hope alive, but the kick was recovered by the Wildcats, who ran out the rest of the clock.
“At the end of the game, the energy after the touchdown just raised,” Knight said. “Everybody was hype on the sideline. Sadly, we couldn’t get the onside kick.”
There are multiple areas that one could point to for why the Pack lost the game, such as the two empty field goals by the usually reliable Dunn or Hockman’s three interceptions, two of which were turned into points by Kentucky and one of which came on a potential go-ahead drive late in the game.
Stat lines from NC State's Gator Bowl loss to UKHockman: 27/40, 268 yds, TD, 3 INTsKnight: 52 yds, TDHouston: Rush TD, 5 recEmezie: 5 rec, 44 ydsThomas: 3 rec, 46 ydsRiley: 3 rec, 38 yds, TDCarter: 3 rec, 35 ydsRooks: 2 rec, 41 ydsDuffy: 13 Tot, FFHarris: 11 Tot, BrUp— Technician Sports (@TechSports) January 2, 2021
Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that NC State was playing without four of its best defensive players in junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill, redshirt sophomore linebacker and ACC leading tackler Payton Wilson, junior safety Tanner Ingle and sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas. All of their absences were felt as the Pack gave up 281 yards on the ground to an impressive group of Kentucky backs.
Nonetheless, it was a valiant effort by the Wolfpack, which battled through adversity the whole season and looked as though it might pull off one last heart-pounding win, only to fall in the Gator Bowl for the second time in three years.
“I love these guys, the players, the coaches, the staff,” Doeren said. “We went through a lot last season. There were a lot of people talking negatively about us. We stuck together. We came back with a growing attitude. We grew a lot together. We learned a lot from each other. A lot of guys stepped up this year.”