Depleted defense, offensive mistakes bite Wolfpack in Gator Bowl loss

NC State finished its season at 8-4

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez is tackled by NC State defenders Ayden White, Seth Williams and Joshua Harris during Saturday's Gator Bowl game in Jacksonville. (Gary Lloyd McCullough/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

NC State’s defense was depleted by injuries, opt-outs and a suspension, but it was an offense that couldn’t get out of its way until it was too late and some rare kicking woes that did in the Wolfpack against Kentucky at the Gator Bowl.

Quarterback Bailey Hockman was intercepted three times, twice in the fourth quarter, and Christopher Dunn missed a pair of field goals as State ended its season with a 23-21 loss in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday.


Despite playing the game without four defensive starters — linebackers Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas, All-American tackle Alim McNeill and safety Tanner Ingle — coach Dave Doeren’s team managed to hold its own against a Wildcats offense that, despite rolling up 281 yards on the ground, had a hard time getting the ball into the end zone.

State, by contrast, had trouble just getting close to the end zone during a first half that saw it held to 87 yards of total offense. Its only serious threat ended with a 40-yard miss by Dunn. The junior kicker also missed from 42 yards on the opening possession of the second half, a drive that was derailed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on receiver Devin Carter.

It was one of several after-the-whistle infractions committed by both teams in the surprisingly contentious game.

The Wolfpack (8-4) finally found its rhythm in the second half, twice pulling to within a single score after getting a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hockman to C.J. Riley and a 13-yard run from Zonovan Knight midway through the fourth quarter.

Each time, State got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. But each time, Hockman was intercepted.

The Wolfpack’s final attempt at a comeback was ended when Kentucky (5-7) recovered an onside kick with just over a minute remaining following a 1-yard touchdown run by Jordan Houston.

Three thoughts

1. State was already at a serious disadvantage with McNeill opting out to prepare for the NFL Draft, Wilson and Thomas both sidelined by injuries, and Ingle serving a suspension for excessive targeting penalties. But Kentucky compounded the problem by wearing down what was left of the Wolfpack defense with a punishing early ground attack. The Wildcats held the ball for the first nine minutes of the game, running 16 plays on the way to an early 3-0 lead.

Although State was able to minimize the damage and keep the game within striking distance, the constant pounding of Kentucky backs Asim Rose (148 yards), Chris Rodriguez (84) and Kavoskey Smoke (45) finally took its toll in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats scored 10 points to put the game away.

2. Hockman managed to not make any damaging mistakes during State’s four-game winning streak to end the regular season. But that old bugaboo returned at the Gator Bowl on Saturday.

His first interception, on the Wolfpack’s opening possession, came when he tried to force a pass to Thayer Thomas into heavy coverage. The second came when he tried making something happen on a deep ball following a Kentucky punt midway through the fourth quarter. The third and arguably most damaging came with 3:06 remaining. Given the ball back by his defense with an opportunity to pull the game out, Hockman instead was picked off by Kentucky’s Jamin Davis. One play later, Rodriguez scored from 26 yards out to effectively put the game away.

3. Dunn is State’s all-time leader with 56 career field goals and had made 12-of-15 attempts this season coming into Saturday, but he struggled on the grass field at TIAA Bank Stadium on Saturday. He appeared to be having trouble with his kicks in pregame warmups and it carried over into the game. His first attempt, from 40 yards, may have been tipped by a Kentucky defender. His second, from 44 yards, was wide left.

Number to Know

1-4 — State’s record in the Gator Bowl. The Wolfpack also lost to Texas A&M (52-13) in 2018, to Florida (27-10) in 1992 and Oklahoma (34-13) in 1947, with its only win in the Jacksonville game coming in 2003, when Philip Rivers led a 28-6 victory against Notre Dame in his final game before moving on to the NFL.

Player of the Game

Isaac Duffy, NC State safety — Forced into a prominent role because of Ingle’s suspension, the sophomore walk-on rose to the occasion by making a team-leading 13 tackles, including eight solo stops. He had one tackle for a loss, and it was a big one — stopping Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez on a fourth-and-short play. He also forced a fumble.

They said it

“We had our chances to make that a different game and we didn’t. I’m proud of the way the kids fought, proud of our season. This doesn’t make me feel like we didn’t have a good season. We did. It was a great experience. ”

— NC State coach Dave Doeren

Critical Thinking

The Wolfpack was hoping to post its third nine-win season in the last four years but instead will end on a down note after a game it deserved to lose but easily could have won. The most positive aspect of an otherwise dreary day in Jacksonville is that, despite the result, Doeren’s program is back headed on an upward trajectory heading into 2021.

Several young players that figure to contribute more next season also got some valuable playing time during the game. It’s a group that includes true freshman defensive tackle Davin Vann, linebacker Jaylon Scott and receiver Keyon Lesane. The Wolfpack can also look forward to the return of starting quarterback Devin Leary, who missed the final seven games with a broken bone in his leg.

“I’m really excited that so many of these players are back,” Doeren said. “It’s going to be a great offseason with them.”