Although not pretty by some standards, the Kentucky Wildcats did what they do best in their 23-21 victory over North Carolina State in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
The tried and true formula of timely defense, power running, and solid special teams -- the staples of Kentucky football -- were enough for the Cats to end their 2020 season on a high note and give the program momentum going into 2021.
Interestingly, the Cats' formula for success isn’t something foreign to the ACC or the 23rd-ranked Wolfpack.
For many years, ACC power Virginia Tech and its Hall of Fame coaching legend Frank Beamer used those three standards to build their program from an afterthought to success and earned the tag “Beamer Ball.”
The Cats (5-6) applied “Beamer Ball” first through its defense, showcasing a stout rushing defense by limiting the Pack (8-4) to 50 net rushing yards and forcing three Bailey Hockman interceptions by Brandin Echols, Jamin Davis, and Yusef Corker.
The UK run game overpowered the NC State defense, rushing for 281 yards behind big games from running backs AJ Rose (149 yards), Chris Rodriguez (87 yards and two touchdowns), and Kavoisey Smoke (47 yards).
The UK special teams also played a major role in the win. Senior kicker Matt Ruffalo went 3-3 on field goals, while All-American punter Max Duffy averaged 40.4 yards per punt with a long of 51 yards.
With new offensive coordinator Liam Coen coming next season, it will be interesting to see how much the Cats hold to the run-heavy mentality. To make the next step of improving offensive balance, the Cats must have a passing game component.
Coen will bring with him a lot of play-action concepts to get the receivers, particularly the tight ends, involved.
But for one more game, the Cats were old-school and got the job done.
Coach Beamer would be proud.
Below are UK's postgame notes, courtesy of UK Athletics.
FINAL SCORE: Kentucky 23, No. 24/22 North Carolina State 21
Team Records and Series Information
· Kentucky completes the season 5-6 and North Carolina State is 84..
· Kentucky leads the series 2-1.
o This is the first time the teams have played in a bowl game.
Notes on the Win
· Kentucky is now 11-9 in bowl games (.550), including 1-1 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
o UK is 5-3 vs. Atlantic Coast Conference teams in bowl games, including 1-0 vs. NC State, North Carolina Florida State and Virginia Tech, 1-2 vs. Clemson and 0-1 vs. Georgia Tech.
· This was UKs third-consecutive bowl win, including the VRBO Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, and the 2019 Belk Bowl. That ties the school record of three straight bowl wins in the 2006 and ’07 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowls and the 2009 AutoZone Liberty Bowl following the ’08 season.
· UK has won 11 consecutive non-conference games over the last three seasons.
· This was UK’s second win over a ranked opponent this season, also vs. then-No. 18 Tennessee, both of which were away from home.
o It is the first time UK has defeated two ranked opponents in the same season since 2018, when the Wildcats knocked off No. 25 Florida, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 12 Penn State.
o It is the first time UK has defeated two ranked opponents away from home in the same season since 2018, when the Cats won at No. 25 Florida and in the Citrus Bowl vs. No. 12 Penn State.
· This was UK’s fifth-consecutive bowl appearance, tying the school record set in the 2006-10 seasons.
· Mark Stoops becomes UK’s first head coach to take a team to five straight bowl games. The previous record was by Rich Brooks in his last four seasons, 2006-09.
o This was Mark Stoops’ 99th game as head coach at Kentucky, one short of the school record of 100 games coached by Fran Curci from 1973-81.
o This was Stoops’ 49th win at Kentucky, second behind Paul “Bear” Bryant, who had 60 victories from 1946-53.
· Turnovers tell the tale: UK won the turnover battle 3-0 today and scored 10 points off turnovers.
o In the five victories this season, UK was +15 in turnover margin; in the six losses, UK was -5 in turnover margin.
· Since 2016, UK is 15-7 in games decided by seven points or less, including 2-1 this season.
· UK made three field goals, breaking the school bowl record of two FGs in six previous bowl games.
Accomplishments of the Senior Class
· For players who are fifth-year seniors (since 2016), they have …
oWon 37 games (most in a five-season span since 1949-53)
oGone to five straight bowl games, tying the school record
oWon 20 SEC games, most in a five-year span in school history
oPosted first 10-win season and winning SEC record since 1977 and first final ranking sine 1984 (2018 season)
oWon a Citrus Bowl, Belk Bowl and Gator Bowl
oNotched victories over six ranked opponents
oWon their regular-season finale for the third-straight year, the first time that has happened in 61 years, 1957-59
o Won three Senior Day games in a row for the first time since 2010-12
o Ended the 31-game losing streak to Florida
o Won at Tennessee for the first time since 1984.
· Senior quarterback Terry Wilson completed 12 of 20 passes for 99 yards. He also rushed six times for a net 14 yards.
· Wilson career notes …
o 17-8 as the UK starting quarterback.
o First player in school history with at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
oHas a career completion percentage of 64.9 (337 of 5199), third in school history.
oHas 4,458 career yards total offense, eighth place on the UK career list.
oJoined Derrick Ramsey as the only starting QBs in UK history to win at Florida and Tennessee.
· Senior running back A.J. Rose rushed 12 times for a career-high 148 yards, his third 100-yard game of the season seventh 100-yard game of his career.
o Rose now has 1,971 career rushing yards, 10th place in school history.
· Sophomore running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. carried the ball 17 times for 84 yards, including both of UK’s touchdowns.
o He has 1,365 career rushing yards, moving into 27th place in school history.
· Senior wide receiver Josh Ali led the team in receptions with four catches for 18 yards.
· Junior linebacker Jamin Davis made 13 tackles, his eighth double-figure game of the season, and one-half quarterback sack.
o He had an interception and five-yard return in the fourth quarter, setting up the game-clinching touchdown. It is his third interception of the season and fifth of his career.
· Senior cornerback Brandin Echols made his first career interception on N.C. State’s first possession and returned it eight yards to midfield. He also made seven tackles during the game.
· Junior safety Yusuf Corker picked off a pass in the fourth quarter, his second of the season, occurring in consecutive games. He also had five tackles.
· Junior safety Tyrell Ajian blocked a field goal attempt in the second quarter, the first blocked kick of his career.
o It is UK’s second blocked field goal of the season, also Jamin Davis vs. Georgia.
o He also made a career-high seven tackles.
· Junior linebacker Jordan Wright made five tackles, including a 12-yard sack, and caused a fumble.
· Senior linebacker Boogie Watson had four tackles, including a tackle for loss.
o He has 28.5 tackles for loss in his career.
· True freshman cornerback Carrington Valentine made his first collegiate start at cornerback. He made six tackles and caused a fumble.
· Senior kicker Matt Ruffolo set a UK bowl record with three field goals, from 25, 26 and 20 yards.
· Senior center Drake Jackson started his 44th consecutive game today, the third-longest streak in school history with starting lineups available since 1993.
o Jackson was today’s team captain and wore jersey No. 65 in honor of offensive line coach John Schlarman, who died Nov. 12.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter as well as local media outlets The Corbin Times-Tribune, London Sentinel-Echo, A Sea of Blue, KySportsStyle.com Magazine, HarlanCountySports.com, and Wildcat Sports Talk.