Wolfpack overcomes shaky start, wins in encouraging offensive outing

North Carolina State’s MJ Morris (7) looks to throw the ball while Marshall’s Jabari Ishmael (93) is tied up by State’s Anthony Belton (74) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — It wasn’t always pretty, but NC State’s offense has seemingly found a pulse, defeating Marshall 48-41 Saturday afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium.

After an embarrassing 13-10 loss to Louisville last week, the Wolfpack made a change. Out went graduate quarterback Brennan Armstrong — who transferred to NC State from Virginia for his final year of eligibility — and in came sophomore quarterback MJ Morris.

Morris, who coach Dave Doeren had previously said would redshirt this season, was the spark for the Wolfpack last season after quarterback Devin Leary went down, and the magic was there again in his 2023 debut. He had career highs in passing yards (265) and touchdowns (4), both season highs for NC State.

Despite the result, it was still a roller coaster performance for Morris, especially early.

On his first pass of the game, Morris was intercepted after his throw went in and out of the hands of freshman receiver KC Concepcion. His third pass went back to Concepcion, and that one was for a 17-yard touchdown.

His fifth pass was a pick-six as Marshall jumped all over an attempted wide receiver screen. Morris bounced back again, leading NC Statedown the field two drives later for another score.

With the Wolfpack down 24-21 at the half, Morris was intercepted again on just his second throw of the third quarter. He again responded, throwing for nearly 200 yards and two more touchdowns the rest of the way.

“Couldn’t have started any worse, right?,” said Doeren. “But he’s a mentally tough young man. Wouldn’t expect anything less from him. He’s going to respond, that’s who he is. And when he gets in a tough situation, he’s going to fight. He’s got a great personality that way, and I think you saw that.”

Morris credited his coach for helping instill that mental toughness.

“Coach Doeren always tells us to put it in the past,” Morris said. “That it’s behind you and those plays aren’t going to fix the rest of the game. It was still early in the game, so I knew I had to just put those in the past and look forward because I couldn’t get down on myself because I know the rest of the team looks to me as a leader and feeds off of my emotions.”

There was a lot to like overall about NC State’s offense, which scored its most points against an FBS opponent since a 58-3 win against ECU in 2018.

On top of Morris’ performance, the Wolfpack’s running game asserted itself.

Running backs Michael Allen and Delbert Mimms each rushed for more than 50 yards and a touchdown, and Morris was able to scramble for multiple first downs as well.

“The run game is the quarterback’s best friend,” Doeren said. “If he has to stand back there and throw it with drop-back protection all game, it’s going to be a hard day. So keeping the defense in check and being balanced and having a physical run game helps the quarterback in more ways than you know. We’ve got to be efficient in the run game, and I feel like both those backs really played hard tonight.”

But more than anything, NC State has to be happy about its passing game being improved.

Concepcion continued to be the Wolfpack’s go-to receiver, making eight catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns.

“That boy’s a dawg,’” Morris said. “He knows what he’s doing out there on the field, he’s never nervous, he knows exactly what he’s doing, he knows how to get open and he knows coverages. Me and him work all the time after practice, so our chemistry is definitely very high. That dude is special. A really good player.”

Graduate tight end Trent Pennix was another key target as he broke free for two open field touchdowns, one for 39 yards and the other for 62.

The Wolfpack did it against a Marshall defense that ranked second overall in passing defense, allowing just 143 yards per game.

“I’m proud of our guys and the way they hung in there through the momentum swings of the game,” Doeren said. “I thought we had complementary football in a lot of ways. Played off of each other. Moments in the game where one side let the other down, the other side responded.”

The Wolfpack’s defense, which again allowed its share of big plays, came up big when it was needed.

NC State forced three fumbles, recovering two, and had an interception, all while holding Marshall’s potent run game to just 104 yards.

Leading the way on defense was graduate linebacker Payton Wilson, who had 14 tackles and a sack, and graduate defensive end Robert Kennedy, who forced and recovered a fumble and had the interception.

“Personally, it was a good game,” Kennedy said. “I still had a lot of mishaps today and some missed tackles though. Overall, it ranks as a good game for me, but I’m going to watch film and definitely improve on what I was messing up on today.”

The Wolfpack will next travel down Tobacco Road to face Duke next Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.