Wolfpack holds on to hand Liberty its first loss

NC State’s Vi Jones (31) celebrates with teammate Isaiah Moore (1) after his game-saving blocked field goal against Liberty on Saturday (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

RALEIGH — NC State ended Liberty’s hopes for an improbable undefeated season by upsetting the nation’s 21st-ranked college football team 15-14 at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.

But before it could beat the Flames, the Wolfpack first had to keep from beating itself.

Coach Dave Doeren’s team overcame 123 yards in penalties, an offensive line that had trouble protecting quarterback Bailey Hockman and wasted several scoring opportunities to hold on for a victory that ensures it of a winning season.

Zonovan Knight converted true freshman Aydan White’s first career interception into the go-ahead touchdown on a 4-yard run with 6:53 remaining, and linebacker Vi Jones preserved the lead by blocking a potential game-winning field goal with just over a minute to play.

The victory wasn’t just a triumph for the Wolfpack, which improved to 6-3 with two games remaining. It also helped the ACC save some face against a Liberty team (8-1) that had previously beaten conference members Syracuse and Virginia team

Three thoughts

1. State’s defense has had its troubles at times this season, allowing 42 or more points four times. But on a night in which the offense couldn’t seem to get out of its own way while mustering only 111 second half yards — including just 11 on the ground — it was the defense that rose to the occasion.

Not only did the Wolfpack keep Liberty quarterback Malik Willis in check, but it held the Flames to 279 total yards — 211 fewer than their season average.

The defense also came up with several huge game-saving plays. One of those — a safety in which linebacker Isaiah Moore tackled running back Peytton Pickett in the end zone and got State within 14-9 late in the third quarter — came from one of the team’s leaders. The other two, fourth-quarter interceptions by White and former walk-on Isaac Duffy, came from unexpected sources.

In all, State recorded three turnovers, the safety and three sacks while shutting out a team averaging 40.5 points per game over the final 23 minutes.

2. Linebacker Vi Jones is becoming something of a blocked kick specialist. His decisive block of a 39-yard field goal attempt by Liberty’s Alex Barbir was his third this season. The transfer from Southern Cal had previously blocked punts against Virginia and Duke, the latter resulting in a touchdown.

This one, however, was by far his most important — especially since Barbir had already made one game-winning field goal against an ACC opponent this year. His 51-yarder with one second left gave the Flames a 38-35 win against Virginia Tech two weeks ago.

3. The Wolfpack was its own worst enemy for most of the evening, starting with a missed 39-yard field goal by the normally reliable Christopher Dunn on the game’s opening drive.

Most of the problems were caused by penalties. While State committed 14 in all, two of the most damaging came late in the first half — an offside call on C.J. Clark followed by an interference infraction by Cecil Powell that allowed Liberty to extend its drive and score a touchdown that tied the game at seven into halftime.

The Wolfpack also had a defensive player ejected for targeting for the fourth time this season. This time it was safety Tanner Ingle, who was called for leading with his helmet on Liberty tight end Johnny Huntley after an interception by teammate Jakeen Harris. It was the second time this season Ingle has been called for targeting, and it came in his first game back after missing the past three with a hamstring injury. Harris and Joshua Pierre-Louis have also been ejected for targeting this season.

Number to Know

— The number of plays from scrimmage Ayden White had played in his college career before Saturday. The freshman cornerback earned his opportunity against Liberty because of injuries in the secondary, Ingle’s ejection and some spotty play by starter Malik Dunlap. He also gave a preview of things to come by picking off three passes in practice this week, according to Doeren. His first in an actual game came when he jumped the route of Flames receiver Kevin Shaa and made a diving catch, giving the Wolfpack a short field that it converted into the game-winning touchdown six plays later.

They Said It

“It was just a desperation block. I’m the jumper in it. I just jumped as high as I could. I remember seeing the ball come and then boom, it just hits me right here in my elbow. I was like, ‘Oh, I blocked it! I blocked it!’”

— NC State linebacker Vi Jones on his decisive blocked field goal

Player of the Game

State linebacker Isaiah Moore — The junior co-captain led the team with 13 tackles, including a half sack on Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. He also made the play that changed the momentum into the Wolfpack’s favor by tackling Flames running back Peytton Pickett in the end zone for a 3-yard loss and a safety with 3:34 remaining in the third quarter.

Critical thinking

State didn’t play its best game Saturday. Far from it. But unlike last season when it found new ways to lose every week, this Wolfpack squad continues to find ways to win.

Saturday’s victory was especially big because of the way it played through adversity, much of it of its own doing, to beat a top-25 opponent on a night in which its quarterback’s best play was a punt off a quick kick that set up Moore’s safety.

With six wins already in the books and remaining games against Syracuse and Georgia Tech, teams that have combined for just three wins between them this season, State has a legitimate shot at doubling last year’s win total — even with a shortened regular season schedule.