Chris Rodriguez

Kentucky's Chris Rodriguez celebrates a late touchdown in Kentucky's Gator Bowl win over North Carolina State.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For Kentucky, the end of the road wasn’t pretty, but what made you think it would be, after a season like this?

The Wildcats went to the Gator Bowl with a 4-6 record, though four of those losses were to teams with top-10 rankings at the end of the season. They also lost offensive line coach John Schlarman to a battle with cancer. They played all season with the heaviness of having lost teammate Chris Oats to a medical issue away from the field. Head coach Mark Stoops fired his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after the regular season. You could forgive the tank being empty.

But under Stoops, Kentucky has developed a habit of winning bowl games. They dominated the first half of Saturday’s Gator Bowl against North Carolina State but led just 13-0 at the break. They wound up walking away with a needlessly close 23-21 victory, but in the end, it was a victory, and that was important.

"It was very important," Stoops said. "It’s been well-documented, the investment, and the toll it’s taken on players all across the country. And to see our players want to do that, and travel back and forth during their break after mentally being exhausted, and still laying it all on the line all the way through the fourth quarter, it says a lot. We talked about it in chapel last night about finishing. ... I addressed it, one of the last thing I said before we left the field, was recognizing Chris Oats and John Schlarman, and having them in our minds. It was great to finish with a victory."

Kentucky didn’t do much different from what it has done all season to win its third straight bowl game. It was opportunistic defensively — snatching three interceptions. It was dominant on the ground, running for 281 yards and nearly 6 yards per carry. The Wildcats didn’t get much done through the air but didn’t need to.

A.J. Rose carried 12 times for 148 yards and was named the team MVP by Gator Bowl media. Chris Rodriguez carried 17 times for 84 yards and both Kentucky touchdowns — and had the biggest short-yardage carries of the game.

And, when the Wolfpack got the ball with one last chance, down 2 in the fourth quarter, Jamin Davis came up with the interception to seal the win. He also led Kentucky with 13 tackles.

Rodriguez scored several plays later, and after an NC State touchdown, Kentucky receiver Allen Dailey went up to get a high-bouncing onside kick to seal the win.

The game was marred by chippy play that neither team could really explain. Kentucky was flagged for six unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and a late hit.

"I don’t know," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said when asked why two teams with so little history had such a chippy game. "Maybe you should ask them."

When Stoops was asked, he said, "I’m disappointed for some of the things that went on. We’ve got to get that cleaned up. ... That’s not us. We’re not going to accept that. ... It’s on me and it’s on us, and we’ll get that addressed."

Still, for Kentucky, it was a positive end to what has been a difficult season, on and off the field. When asked about how he was going to try to breathe life into the program’s passing game in the future, Stoops hit the brakes.

"We’re going to say goodbye to 2020 today," Stoops said. "So it’s on to the future. You know, we really greatly appreciate the win but we’re also excited about the future of Kentucky football. We’ll address that in January. I need a few days off."

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