NC State’s 2020 season was about making the most of the least, maximizing potential and shocking the pundits. Picked to finish 11th in the ACC, the team was a mini-Cinderella story, reversing its fortunes and ending the season tied at fourth in the conference.
It earned its way into the Gator Bowl back in postseason play after winning four of the five one-score games it took part in. But when the clock struck 12 on Jan. 2, the Wolfpack’s luck ran out.
On defense, NC State was down four starters with three others injured during the game. Junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill, redshirt sophomore linebacker Payton Wilson, sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas and junior safety Tanner Ingle were all out for a variety of reasons, ranging from opting out to injury to suspension, and yet the Wildcats only barely topped their average points scored.
“Anytime you play a game without Payton Wilson, Drake Thomas, Tanner Ingle and Alim McNeill, those are four really good run defenders against a really good rushing offense,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “We were concerned, coming into the game, about it. Not that we stopped the run, we didn’t. But we did enough, and kept them off the scoreboard enough, to give ourselves a chance.”
But did it score enough to take advantage? Averaging over 30 points a game, NC State scored well below its average. Junior kicker Chris Dunn had a kick blocked and missed another field-goal attempt, while the offense averaged a paltry 1.9 yards per rush. The team’s injury-laden offensive line was dominated in the trenches, forcing a reliance on the passing attack.
Redshirt junior quarterback Bailey Hockman has been the belle of the ball this season, clearly the most improved player on the roster, and things rested on his shoulders Saturday. That’s nothing new for NC State’s starter, who’s talked about enjoying the trust offensive coordinator Tim Beck gives him — trust he earned as a result of his growth. When previewing this game, Hockman knew he was up against a challenge against this SEC defense.
“They play a little bit similar to Liberty,” Hockman said in a Dec. 22 Zoom press conference. “A lot of quarters [coverage], a lot of Cover 3, but they kind of line up in what they’re going to do… They’ve also created a lot of turnovers this year. We have to be able to protect the ball and make sure we’re making good decisions.”
Hockman’s early thoughts on Kentucky’s defense were prescient, though it appears Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White added in some wrinkles in preparation for this game. The Wildcats disguised coverages at times, and it appears that confused Hockman. On more than one occasion, Hockman didn’t notice nearby defenders in zone coverage. When he let the ball loose, liking his one-on-one matchup, they then peeled off their assignments and either broke up the pass or picked him off.
Hockman was right, he needed to protect the ball and keep the turnover margin even, but after setting a season high in giveaways with three interceptions, his riches are looking more and more like rags. The Wolfpack needed someone to step up offensively, and it’s still looking.
NC State needed three more points to win and you can find them in the stat sheet. Six points were squandered on missed field goals, the offense had four scoreless drives, or better yet, 13 were given to Kentucky off turnovers. Doeren was right, one phase did enough to win. The other two let it down.
With the loss, Dave Doeren falls to .500 in bowls at NC State. He should be in position to improve that record next year.
“I love this football team,” Doeren said. “I’m excited about the guys that are coming back. There’s a lot of positives that we can take from the season.”