8:57:35UKvsSC2020FB

Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Jamin Davis (44) celebrates a tackle during the University of Kentucky vs. University of South Carolina football game on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 41-18. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

The Cats are in a familiar place for their bowl game, having just played Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl in 2016. But their opponent is anything but familiar.

NC State and Kentucky have played just twice all-time, with each team claiming one victory. The Wolfpack emerged with a 15-6 win in Raleigh back in 1909, while the Cats took home the 1970 matchup in Lexington 27-2.

Head coach Dave Doeren is capping off his eighth year at NC State after a two-year stint at Northern Illinois. He has only had two losing seasons (2013, 2019) in his tenure, making this Gator Bowl appearance his sixth with the Wolfpack. They’re 3-2 over their first five appearances, but lost its 2018 Gator Bowl contest to Texas A&M 52-13. Doeren’s all-time record is 78-49, including 55-45 in Raleigh.

NC State opened the year 4-1, but lost first-string quarterback Devin Leary to a broken fibula versus Duke in October. Bailey Hockman – who started the opening two weeks due to COVID contact tracing for Leary – took the reigns from there. After losing back-to-back games following Leary’s injury, the redshirt junior orchestrated four straight wins to close out the regular season, throwing for 1,041 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions over that stretch. One of those wins came over then-No. 21 Liberty, and is the only blemish on the Flames’ 2020 resume (10-1).

The Wolfpack’s rushing attack is the definition of by committee, consisting of sophomore Zonovan Knight and junior Ricky Person Jr. They’ve split the workload nearly 50/50 (131 carries/20 receptions for Knight, 141 totes/17 catches for Person Jr.), but Knight has been more explosive, recording 872 total yards and nine scores (all rushing) compared to 766 and four (all rushing) for Person Jr.

Hockman has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, but there are three to focus on: senior WR Emeka Emezie (42 rec./694 yds./5 TD’s), graduate WR Thayer Thomas (39 rec./483 yds./6 TD’s) and senior TE Cary Angeline (27 rec./412 yds./6 TD’s). They’ve reeled in 17 of the 23 Wolfpack passing scores on the year, and will draw the best coverage defenders the Cats can offer. WR’s Devin Carter and Porter Rooks also have more than 20 catches on the season, and could play a role for NC State.

The Wolfpack defense will be hampered, as four starters will miss the game for different reasons. The biggest blow is do-it-all linebacker Payton Wilson, a first-team All-ACC selection who paced the team with 108 tackles. The onus to fill the holes against Kentucky’s rushing attack now falls to linebacker Isaiah Moore and safety Jakeen Harris, who are the second (85) and third (65) leading tacklers for the unit.

When Kentucky drops back, two main rushers will be looking to get after the quarterback: DL Daniel Joseph and DE Terrell Dawkins. They’ve combined for eleven sacks (Joseph – 6.5, Dawkins – 4.5), and look to add to that total on Saturday.

NC State’s run defense has struggled mightily this season. As we all know, ground and pound is the name of the game for the Cats. If they can assert their rushing attack and control time of possession, the defense should be well rested throughout the game and provide a great chance to win.

Kentucky and NC State kick off at 12:00 p.m. ET. The game can be seen on ESPN and the ESPN app.