The Kentucky Wildcats once again have kicked off their New Year in style, winning their third consecutive bowl game under head coach Mark Stoops.
The Wildcats narrowly edged No. 23 NC State in a 23-21 boxing match Saturday. After jumping out to a 13-0 lead in the first half, the rushing attack was explosive, and Kentucky’s defense was dialed in.
Following the midway point, the Wolfpack respectfully put together a 14-3 scoring stretch to make it 16-14. Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. returned the favor by breaking away late for a 26-yard score and ultimately put the game away.
NC State would score another touchdown with less than two minutes left to at least force an onside kick, but Kentucky’s special teams sealed the deal on the recovery.
From a tight defense, AJ Rose breaking lose on every carry (148 rushing yards) and Rodriguez finding the end zone twice, the Wildcats will return to Lexington and end their year on a high note.
While 2020 was full of memories to forget, the perseverance of Kentucky to come in and knock off a top-25 team for their bowl victory is an extraordinary way to start 2021. Here’s what Stoops and his Wildcats had to say following the win.
Live Now: Coach Stoops, and Players - TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Press Conference https://t.co/MFls0cGh0F— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) January 2, 2021
(On how proud he is Kentucky held on during a rocky second half to win the game) “Well, very proud of our football team. I think there were a few critical plays in there where we had a chance to take it to another level, or, I wouldn’t put it away, but make us feel a lot better about it. I think the penalty at the end of first half, where we settled for a field goal when we actually threw a nice fade for a touchdown and our tight end lined up off the ball, but that’s on us. We actually should have gone right back to the call the play I had before with the same formation. But really proud of our team, proud of our coaches. People don’t realize it, but it’s a pretty big deal when you’re down three of your full-time offensive coaches. And really proud of (associate head coach/tight ends/recruiting coordinator/NFL liaison) Vince Marrow, (assistant coach – wide receivers) Coach (Javon) Bouknight, (quality control coaches) Mark Perry, Josh Estes-Waugh, Cody Lasita, Maxwell Smith, guys really stepped up, did a really good job, some young coaches, to go win a bowl game. To win the Gator Bowl with two of your full-time coaches and a bunch of analysts and graduate assistants, guys that stepped up and really did a good job. Proud of them. Proud of our seniors; led us to three straight bowl victories. That’s a really big accomplishment and I greatly appreciate all of our players. All of them, once again, really wanted to be here, played a good game. I’m disappointed with some of the things that went on during the game. We’ve got to get cleaned up. Some of that, I’ve got to look at it. It was hard to tell, but some of that unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, I’ve got to get cleaned up and I will. That’s not us, we’re not going to accept that. I’m not going to get into touchy or not or whatever, I really couldn’t tell. But these were clearly not officials we’re used to, but that also is on me and it’s on us and we’ll get that addressed. When you’re in these bowl games, you’re not used to certain officials, and I’ve got to do a better job preparing us for that.”
(On how important it was to close the season with a happy moment and celebration) “I think it’s very important. You know, again, it’s been well-documented, the investment, and it’s also been well-documented, the toll that it’s taken on all players across the country. And to once again see our players step up and want to do that and travel back and forth during their break after, really, being mentally exhausted and still laying it on the line all the way through to the fourth quarter, says an awful lot. We talked about it in chapel last night, about finishing – Aaron Hoge always does a remarkable job – and I talked about it this morning and I addressed it, one of the last things I said when we left the field was recognizing (linebacker) Chris Oats and (late Kentucky assistant coach) John Schlarman and having their memories in our mind today and wishing they were with us. A very emotional year, but great to cap it off with a big victory.”
(On what kept him from putting in quarterbacks Joey Gatewood or Beau Allen) “Yeah, I wanted to and I probably should have, to be honest with you. I have great confidence in (quarterback) Terry (Wilson) and he did pull out the victory, but it was also important to get the win. I’ve seen Terry rally us back many times before, but I wish I had got them (Gatewood and Allen) in, Mike, to be honest with you, but I didn’t. Fortunately, we came out with a victory.”
(On running back Asim “A.J.” Rose ending his career at Kentucky with a great game) “It was really big and I was really happy for him. I’m really proud of A.J. Just like a lot of our players, if you’re around here for four years, for five years, you’re going to go through some ups and some downs. He certainly has, but he’s been there. He’s been consistent, he has a wonderful family (and) he was the MVP of the game this afternoon. (I’m) just really happy for him, really proud of him. He’s been here for a long time and he’s helped us win a lot of games. Again, you’re going to get criticism, you’re going to get people coming at you and talking about other people, but he just kind of always stuck to himself and worried about his game and his self, and happy that he went out that way.”
(On the graduate assistants and other assistants who can be credited with coming up with Kentucky’s offensive game plan) “Yeah, the guys that were promoted to full-time are, again, Mark Perry, Josh Estes-Waugh, Cody Lasita were all promoted and were full-time roles for this game. Maxwell Smith has been a graduate assistant for us and all those guys really contributed and really worked hard leading up to the game. It was a group effort, and again, Vince (Marrow) and Coach Bouknight did a great job. (I’m) just proud of the whole group. It’s not easy; you’re down three full-time coaches and your two primary play callers, so a very different situation and I’m glad that we put it together.”
(On if today was a statement game for linebacker Jamin Davis) “I think every opportunity, every time Jamin steps on the field, he’s getting better. He and I had a good talk last night, and I appreciate the way he went out and played today. He’s getting better with every rep and every opportunity and it doesn’t surprise me. But I will say, from the sideline to the far sideline, I noticed him showing up several plays. Certainly it looked like he played a very good game. I’ll have to go look at the tape.”
(On how he sees Kentucky’s passing offense evolving in the next year or two) “We’re going to say goodbye to 2020 today. It’s onto the future. I really greatly appreciate the win, but also very excited about the future of Kentucky football. We’ll address that when I get back in January. I need a few days off.”
(On the play of punter Max Duffy and him eluding an NC State player to get a punt off) “Yeah, that’s a great point. Field position was such a huge deal in this game. What he did on the punt, when I was watching it live, I’ll have to look at it, (it was) really a big-time play. It just goes to show you how savvy he is and how talented he is. Definitely we’re grateful for his background of Aussie football right there on that play because to have the confidence in that to elude the rush and then punt it the way he did, he’s just a talented guy. He really is. He’s got more tricks up his sleeve too. I wish we had him for more years, but like I said before, we’re grateful bringing in another Aussie.”
(On the play of safety Vito Tisdale and defensive back Carrington Valentine) “Vito was really looking good towards the end of the season and bowl prep and then he got a little injury, a hamstring injury, that I was really pleased that he was able to play. He missed the last three practices, I believe, with that hamstring. But he’s out there, he’s a fun guy. I like the way he plays. He brings some energy and some juice and he did a good job. And then Carrington, we have high hopes for him, we really do. I think he’s going to be a really good player. I thought he did a good job today. He was a little passive at times, keeping things in front of him, but that’s okay. We can work with that and get him tightened up. He’s also good at press, and just overall, really pleased with him.”
(On the assets of Carrington Valentine and what he’s going to bring to the program in the future) “Carrington, he’s got some length and you know the biggest thing he’s going to bring is he’s a competitor. That’s what I like about him. He’s not afraid to get up and play tighter. Again, some of the calls today, he was off, but later, when he rolled up in press, he’s a competitive guy.”
(On if he saw this game as a validation since he didn’t make the All-SEC Team)
“Just all season I already was playing with a chip on my shoulder, I didn’t look at this one any different. I just wanted to come out and play for 22 and ball out and do what I could.”
(On why he thought it got so emotional between the two teams)
“I mean, both teams just fighting for that trophy. It’s always going to get chippy when there’s something to lose. We’ve just got to bounce back and everybody’s got to keep their composure, I guess.”
(On what was going through his mind before the last series)
“Honestly, in the back of my mind, we just wanted to refuse to lose the game. We just wanted to keep our backs against the wall and don’t let nobody take it from us. That’s been the same thing we’ve been preached to all year – if the ball’s in the air, it’s our ball – so that’s my main mindset is keep playing and ice the game.”
(On what did it mean to end such an emotional season on a high note and what it can do for the program moving forward)
“Definitely. It was extremely emotional. Even walking into the locker room, we were saying, ‘That was for 22, that was for [John] Schlarman.’ It’s definitely something to show to the younger guys, that we keep playing through all the adversity, whatever’s going around us, all the outside noise, block it out and keep playing. We know what we go through on a daily basis to put in the work and we’ve got to keep going, regardless.”
(On if he’s made a decision whether he’s coming back next year)
“Honestly, I’m just trying to enjoy the bowl win. I’m not really worried about anything else right now. I’m just trying to go and enjoy everything with my teammates.”
(On who impressed him on his defense today)
“I can’t single out anybody. Everybody didn’t back down. All 11 guys, we did what we could, we tried to keep playing to make sure, like I said before, that in the back of our mind we refused to lose the game, regardless. Of course, we had a bunch of, I guess you could call it mess-ups here and there, but at the end of the day we’re just going to keep playing, stay together and just play to the next play.”
(On what the locker room was like and what did Coach Stoops say to the team after the game)
“Like I said before, it was really emotional because everybody knows it’s been a pretty rough season for us. We’ve had our ups and downs, Chris [Oats], Coach Schlarman, everything, so it’s definitely something for the younger guys to keep going basically moving forward.”
(On if he heard anything from NC State players regarding ACC vs. SEC and pride in their conferences)
“Honestly, I don’t really pay any attention to any outside noise, and I’m pretty sure the rest of us don’t either. Like I said before, it’s always going to get emotional when you have a lot to lose, so of course you’ll have a bunch of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties here and there, but at the end of the day I didn’t really pay any attention to anything being said or whatever, just made sure I got my guys’ backs and to prepare for the next play.”
(On what did the coaches say to the team when things were getting out of control on the Kentucky sideline)
“Basically to keep our composure and go out there and play our game, do what we got to do and get back to the sideline, that’s all that needs to be said. We just let our play do the talking.”
(On potentially ending his career at Kentucky with a win and what he thought it brought to the memory of the late Kentucky assistant coach John Schlarman)
“John was definitely looking down on us. Coach Schlar definitely inspired us all. It was a great way to end, if this was my last game. I’m definitely blessed to be here and participate in this bowl game again. My first bowl game (was) here, we lost, but it was a different outcome this time. (The) offensive line did a great job today. They was moving people all around all day. Give credit to all five of those guys.”
(On how much it helped Kentucky’s offense with the team’s defense setting them up with great field position throughout the game)
“That was big-time. The defense came away with a couple steals, a couple interceptions that put us in great field position. We capitalized at those times and credit to the defense and those guys who caught those interceptions and put us in a great position to score the football.”
(On if he was surprised on how chippy the game got, especially towards the end of the second half)
“It was surprising, but it was chippy throughout the whole game. It was an emotional football game. Both teams wanted to be here, both teams wanted to win. Unfortunately some flags were thrown and (there were) a couple penalties here and there, but throughout it all, we still managed to come out with a win and that’s all that matters.”
(On if he can finally exhale now that the season is over and what that feeling is like)
“It feels great. I mean, it’s unfortunate that the season’s over, but it feels good to end on that win, how we did, getting that bowl win for this community and for the school. It’s been a long year, a tough year with most of these COVID restrictions and everything that’s going around, but I feel like we managed it and we did a great job keeping players safe and keeping everyone that was around us safe.”
(On, as someone who has been at Kentucky for the entirety of its bowl streak, what it says about the team and program that their season didn’t fall apart when everything seemed to be going wrong in the middle of the season)
“It just shows the type of guys that get recruited here. They come here and they stick to the program and they stick to where this program wanted to go. Five straight bowl games since I’ve been here, it’s only been on the up. I feel like Coach Stoops has done an amazing job. The whole coaching staff (is) recruiting players that want to go here and just want to contribute to this team. I feel like, throughout it all, this was a great win and I’m ecstatic right now. I can’t even put it into words.”