Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Brandin Echols (26) celebrates with his team after picking off a NC State pass during the University of Kentucky vs. North Carolina State TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. Kentucky won 23-21. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

The recent string of success the Kentucky football program has seen under Mark Stoops has become borderline unprecedented.

With their 23-21 win over NC State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, the Cats not only picked up their third straight bowl victory, but their third consecutive season with a bowl victory, matching the 2006-08 stretch under Rich Brooks for the longest such streak in program history.

“Proud of our guys… proud of our coaches,” Stoops said postgame. “It’s a very big accomplishment.”

At halftime, it looked like Kentucky may not only win its third bowl in a row, but do it in resounding fashion. It led 13-0, racked up 284 rushing yards while holding the Wolfpack to 87 total yards and maintained a nearly seven-minute edge in time of possession.

But the offense garnered just 22 yards on its next eleven plays, and NC State started to sort things out. A 13-play, 76-yard drive ended with quarterback Bailey Hockman rolling left and perfectly lobbing a pass to C.J. Ridley in the back of the end zone to get the Wolfpack on the board, suddenly snapping the Cats back into the reality of their situation: a dogfight, with only a 13-7 margin.

Then, as we’ve seen many a time, the defense stepped up. The ensuing play after a Max Duffy punt, Yusuf Corker read Hockman’s eyes and received the message, hustling to his left and skying up for an interception to give Kentucky the ball at the NC State 42-yard line. The Cats then tacked on a field goal to extend the lead to nine.

Then, minutes later, now up only two, it was déjà vu: the play immediately succeeding a Duffy punt, DeAndre Square dove in front of a Wolfpack receiver to break up a pass. The ball bounced in the air and landed in the hands of Jamin Davis, giving Big Blue Nation a massive sigh of relief. Chris Rodriguez busted off a 26-yard scoring scamper on the next snap, ultimately securing the win.

“That was big time,” running back A.J. Rose said. “They came up with turnovers and put us in great positions to score.”

Rose was named Kentucky’s MVP for his efforts, which saw him total 148 yards on just twelve carries. The senior back – who didn’t rule out a potential return in 2021 when speaking postgame – has caught a lot of fan flack over his time in Lexington (unwarranted in my eye; presumably for some fumbling issues), but Coach Stoops’ confidence in him never wavered.

“Really happy for him,” the head coach said. “You’re gonna go through some ups and downs, and he certainly did, but he stayed consistent.”

One of the reasons Kentucky was unable to produce much offensively, and struggled on some defensive possessions, was penalties. The Cats had a whopping six unsportsmanlike conduct calls in a game that was chippy through its duration.

“[Those] are not us,” Stoops said about all the whistles before mentioning the officials were some the team lacked familiarity with.

If there was a defensive MVP named, it likely would have been Jamin Davis. A shock to no one at this point, Davis was credited with 13 tackles, a half sack, half tackle for loss and pulled down the team’s third interception. He was flying across the field making plays all season long.

“I appreciate the way he went out and played,” Stoops said. “I noticed him many times.”

While it’s not a shock now to see Davis fill the box score, if you had said he’d be potentially the best player on this defense a year ago, you wouldn’t have expected it. Not because he lacked the ability, but because Chris Oats appeared to be on his way for a breakout as the guy lining up beside DeAndre Square. That tragedy opened an avenue to stardom for Davis, but it, along with COVID, the passing of John Schlarman and countless other outside factors, weighed heavily on the team the entire season. Not a single player forgot who they were fighting for.

‘“Walking into the locker room, we were saying, “That’s for 22!! That’s for Schlarman!”’ Davis told reporters.

“Coach Schlarman was definitely looking down on us,” Rose commented. “[It has] been a long year, tough year… definitely a great way to end.”