Just about everything that could go wrong for NC State in the Gator Bowl did go wrong, and after a completely listless first half, the Wolfpack could not make enough plays to rally back from its 13-point halftime deficit to Kentucky.
It was the result that NC State deserved after a sloppy effort characterized by bad penalties and poor execution. The offense was off-kilter from the start, as Bailey Hockman struggled to find any sort of rhythm. And with the ground game not amounting to much, NC State needed Hockman to play well. Instead, he turned in one of his worst performances of the season, one that included a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions that helped derail the comeback effort.
The Pack finally got on the scoreboard with a 76-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, cutting the Kentucky edge to 13-7. The defense stepped up with a couple of stops to give the offense two cracks at giving State the lead, but on that second possession, Hockman threw his second pick of the day, setting Kentucky up in plus territory. The Wildcats regained a two-score lead with a field goal on their ensuing drive.
NC State yet again had an opportunity to erase a game’s worth of poor performance, with the ball and trailing 16-14. But here again Hockman showed the indecisiveness that is so debilitating for him, making a late throw over the middle that was tipped and intercepted. Kentucky got into the end zone on the next play, and that was all the cushion it needed.
The Wildcats piled up 281 yards rushing, but NC State’s defense wasn’t bad under the circumstances—y’know, playing without Alim McNeill, Payton Wilson, Drake Thomas, and Tanner Ingle. The defense certainly did enough to give State a chance at stealing this one in the final quarter, and that’s all anybody could have asked from those guys.
Hockman just wasn’t up to the task today. That sucks, but it shouldn’t overshadow how well he played down the stretch this season when NC State needed it. He had a nice year and he meant a lot to the team’s success. Unfortunately, the Gator Bowl was a throw back to darker times.