CHAPEL HILL — NC State had just gotten a hard-fought stop on third down to force rival UNC to try for a field goal.
The Wolfpack was up three in double overtime in their biggest game of the season — Senior Night at Kenan Memorial Stadium against the hated Tar Heels in their annual Black Friday matchup.
The emotional roller-coaster of the game had left many whiplashed as the Tar Heels managed to convert three straight fourth downs to force overtime with no time left on the clock. UNC was again primed to keep the game going.
“He’s gonna miss,” NC State junior receiver Devin Carter said of what he was thinking on the sidelines on that final play. “That was the first thing in my mind. We called the timeout, iced him, and I thought, ‘He’s gonna miss.’
“I can’t explain why I knew. It’s just that good things happen to the good guys.”
He was right. NC State (8-4, 4-4 ACC) saw its regular season end the same way it had started: winning off of a missed kick. In Week 1, it was East Carolina’s kicker missing an extra point. On Friday, it was UNC kicker Noah Burnette missing the 35-yard field goal in double overtime to seal a 30-27 win for the Wolfpack.
“We knew that if we got this win at UNC, it would be a big ol’ Band-Aid on the season,” said starting redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Finley. “Anytime you can beat your rivals, especially at their home on Senior Night, it’s huge.”
It wasn’t an easy win by any stretch of the imagination as the Wolfpack missed kicks of their own, fumbled away possessions and shot themselves in the foot after building an early lead. But in the end, NC State did what it needed to win.
“I think it’s just a testament to our team and culture,” said senior safety Tanner Ingle. “We made an emphasis on just whatever happens, to make sure we finish the season. So we went out there and we played hard, did what we had to do, put our heads down and won. We didn’t go out there and play soft, we played like we wanted to win, and that’s what we did.”
A big part of it was the defense stepping up to slow down UNC’s high-powered offense. From improbable goal-line stands and bone-rattling hits to sacks to game-changing interceptions, the defense has been the heartbeat of the team throughout the season and was the driving force behind the upset.
The Wolfpack totaled two sacks, 11 quarterback hits, nine tackles for loss and forced five three-and-outs, and it then made a key interception late in the fourth quarter to keep NC State’s hopes alive.
“It just proves the staying power that our guys have,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren. “Their resiliency, their toughness, their grit, their love. I told them all week, ‘Nobody is going to care about anything other than this when we win this game. This will make a lot of things feel better.’ It’s a 365-day you-know-what sandwich that the other school gets to eat, and we didn’t want to eat it. We didn’t want to have that. We wanted to finish with that pride.
“That’s what happens in rivalry games. One team gets to feel good for a year and the other one doesn’t. It’s a great job by our guys finishing it.”
On top of the veteran defense stepping up with one more clutch performance, the struggling Wolfpack offense had a much-needed bounce-back effort.
Nine different players caught passes for the Wolfpack, led by Carter in his biggest game of the season — six catches for 130 yards and the touchdown.
“We needed Devin,” Doeren said. “He’s a guy that can make contact catches and they’ve got big corners. (He) came up with a big play for us there to get the lead. A lot of contact catches. It’s good to have Devin back.”
And while UNC (9-3, 6-2 ACC) may have the best quarterback in the ACC this season, NC State proved that it is by far the deepest at the position.
Finley became the third starter and fourth quarterback to win a game this season for the Wolfpack. He’s also the second Finley to win in Kenan Memorial Stadium, a feat his brother Ryan pulled off twice — once in 2016 and again in 2018.
Just a few weeks prior, the younger Finley was on the scout team getting the defense prepared for their upcoming opponents. On Friday, he completed 68% of his passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns and outdueled Drake Maye, who many had penciled in as a Heisman favorite a few weeks ago.
“You can never doubt yourself,” Finley said. “To persevere is just the biggest thing in life. Things are going to happen to you and just fighting, keep climbing up the hill and you never reach the pinnacle of the mountain. You just have to keep climbing and keep getting better. That’s what we do on the scout team, it’s just what our entire team does. Just keep on fighting.”
The winning kick even had some history beyond the results as NC State graduate kicker Christopher Dunn became the ACC all-time career scoring leader with 479 points, passing former Clemson running back Travis Etienne.
In a season of high expectations that didn’t materialize, the Wolfpack had enough left to beat their rivals.
“It’s always exciting beating Carolina,” Ingle said.