Some way, some how, the number 24 ranked NC State Wolfpack (6-2, 2-2 ACC) did it again, pulling off an improbable and miraculous fourth-quarter, 22-21, comeback win over the Virginia Tech Hokies (2-6, 1-4 ACC) Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.
After posting a 14-point comeback in their last home game against FSU, NC State one upped itself, this time with an 18-point comeback against the Hokies.
“It says a lot about the heart of this team,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “The chemistry of this team, the love of this team. Against Florida State, it was Jack [Chambers] that brought us back and in this one it was M.J. [Morris]. The kids just don’t quit here. We’ve built up a culture of persistence, perseverance and love and it shows.”
It didn’t come easy for the Pack, as through nearly three full quarters, the Wolfpack’s offense was anemic. They were stagnant on the field, nobody was making plays and it seemed like the season was withering before the NC State faithful’s very eyes.
But something flipped late in the third quarter and after that moment, it was like a totally different team had entered the fray.
True freshman quarterback M.J. Morris led the way for the Wolfpack after coming in for graduate Jack Chambers, throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing, with 213 of those yards and all three touchdowns coming in the second half.
“There were a lot of things going on in my head, but the one thing I tried to focus on was just doing my job for the team,” Morris said. “Just encouraging everybody to do what they gotta do because if we just do our jobs, everyone is going to take care of each other.”
Helping the freshman quarterback along was graduate receiver Thayer Thomas, who had a strong bounceback performance with ten catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Other big names on offense were redshirt junior tight end Trent Pennix who made his return to the field for the first time since Week 1, catching a touchdown pass, and freshman receiver Terrell Timmons, whose 43 yard reception was one of the biggest sparks for the offense.
“[Timmons] is a very gifted ball catcher,” Doeren said. “He can go up and track the football and elevate. He’s got really, really good speed and he’s just been coming on. Felt like we needed another playmaker on offense. A guy that could stretch the field. Just looking for another way to get a vertical threat in the passing game and you saw a glimpse of it tonight. Once he learns the offense, he’s got a huge, huge upside.”
Through the first half though, it was one of the ugliest displays of football yet this season.
In those two quarters of play alone, the two teams combined for just 176 yards of total offense, 60 yards of penalties, nine false starts and a single field goal in the closing seconds of the second quarter.
In a way you could give credit to the Wolfpack for having both a lead and a defense that was rock solid against the Hokies through the initial 30 minutes, allowing just 46 total yards of offense and only two total first downs, but it was more Virginia Tech sabotaging itself than anything, exemplified no better than their seven false starts in that half alone.
However, the third quarter was a total flip of the script for both teams.
The Hokies exploded out of the gate and used that momentum to take a 21-3 lead with three touchdowns within their first four drives of the quarter and in the moment, after the third one was scored, it looked like ballgame.
But something finally clicked for NC State late in that third quarter and they took it to the Hokies from there.
“Grant Gibson usually doesn’t cuss or scream at us,” Thomas said when asked what might have sparked the offense. “He’s very quiet, but when he says something people listen. But he started cussing us out on the sideline and when he did that, I sort of knew we needed to pick it up. That’s sort of what I felt like sparked us in the second half. That he came over and called the offensive up and got on us pretty well. That really helped us turn it on.”
While the offensive resurgence was the highlight of the game, the defensive effort was what allowed the offense to even have a chance at the comeback. The Wolfpack defense pitched a shutout through three of the four quarters and came away with a few crucial sacks and three-and-outs to set up the victory.
“We just kept playing,” Doeren said. “That’s one thing about NC State, going back to Jimmy V. Never quit. I think that’s something that our team has embraced.”
While the third quarter saw the defense stumble, a quick regroup was all the Pack needed to right the ship and, from that point on, they allowed the Hokie’s offense only one more first down.
“As a defense, we knew we gave up those plays,” said graduate safety Cyrus Fagan. “We beat ourselves on those plays. So we just went back to doing our job and doing it physically and fast. When our backs are against the wall, we just lock arms. All week we were preaching, when stuff goes wrong, wrap your arm around your brother and hold him tighter. I felt like that came to light because we were down bad and we had to hold each other accountable and push the offense. We just had each other’s backs.”
The final key for NC State in the win was some hard-nosed running by junior running back Jordan Houston who managed to chew the remaining 5:35 off the clock to secure the win.
“I was proud of the O-line, tight ends and Jordan Houston, the way he ran,” Doeren said. “That was big to not give them the opportunity. We just grinded it out. Did what was necessary to win.”
The Wolfpack will next play host to the number 10 ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons for a prime time showdown at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday night at 8 p.m.