Coming down the final stretch of the season, N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said his team needed some luck to go their way.
Early in the regular-season finale against North Carolina, the complete opposite happened.
N.C. State blocked a punt, their second of the game. A blocked punt usually is a good sign for the defense. Instead, UNC tight end Garrett Walston picked up the ball and ran 18 yards for the first time, keeping a Tar Heels drive alive.
“You ever seen someone block a punt and someone else get a first down out of it,” Doeren asked. “Like, the opposite of getting bounces our way. We were due.”
For all the bad things, the N.C. State “stuff” that has haunted the Wolfpack for years, the program was long overdue for a good bounce. Trailing by two with 1:35 remaining, Christopher Dunn lined up for the all-important onside kick. Rewind to two weeks ago when N.C. State was in the same situation at Wake Forest, down three to the Demon Deacons. On a cold night in Winston Salem, Ricky Person, Jr. appeared to recover the onside kick attempt. Person was called for off sides and Wake Forest won the game.
In Friday’s regular-season finale, the Wolfpack was in the same situation.
“It was crazy,” Leary said. “Just to think we were in a very similar situation not too long ago and things didn’t go our way. I knew as soon as we recovered the onside kick we were going to score somehow, some way. Football kind of works out that way sometimes and I’m glad it was in our favor.”
Dunn recovered the kick, N.C. State scored three plays later and pandemonium returned to Carter-Finley Stadium. The ball bounced in the Wolfpack’s favor enough for a 34-30 come-from-behind victory.
“That’s why you play until the last second runs off the clock,” Doeren said. “So proud of our team and their fight.”
The Wolfpack trailed by nine with 2:30 remaining. The right bounce and 13 points later, N.C. State is now 9-3 (6-2 in ACC), perfect at home and staring down a 10-win season for the second time ever. Emeka Emezie, the all-time receptions leader for the Pack, caught two touchdown passes from Leary — who completed 19 of 30 passes in the game for 247 yards — in the final 1:35. Leary’s four passing touchdowns carried him past N.C. State legend Philip Rivers’ single-season touchdown mark.
Emezie has caught a bunch of balls inside Carter-Finley Stadium, including a few in the same endzone he was in Friday night. After the come-from-behind performance, even he couldn’t put into words the game he played in.
“What even just happened,” Emezie pondered after the game, still processing.
At some point when they were down, Emezie looked in the crowd and caught a glimpse of a t-shirt. Written on the shirt was the phrase made famous by former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano: Don’t ever give up.
“Things just went our way,” Emezie said. “It’s crazy.”
Things don’t just go in favor of the Wolfpack. Not like this. Not against your rival, with its legendary quarterback, who was doing everything in his power to spoil all that N.C. State had on the line.
But the football Gods finally blessed N.C. State. On the last scoring drive, UNC was called for three penalties, including two for 15 yards. The third, a pass interference call on Storm Duck, set N.C. State up at the 24.
On the next play Leary found Emezie, who used his size to go up and over the defender for the touchdown. Down two, the Wolfpack could have played it safe and settled for a field goal. But when things are finally in your favor, why not roll the dice.
“Tim (offensive coordinator Tim Beck) asked me if I wanted to run the ball a little bit,” Doeren said. “I said ‘No, Devin’s hot, let’s just go score.’ We were going to be aggressive and take it down the field.”
With the win, N.C. State finished perfect at home for the first time since 1986. Doeren has secured his third nine-win season and is the first coach in school history with three nine-win campaigns. With a little more luck, the Wolfpack could have another game in a week — in Charlotte for the ACC title.
They would need some more help from the football Gods. Wake Forest takes on Boston College in Chestnut Hill. If the Eagles pull off the upset, N.C. State would win the Atlantic and take on Pittsburgh in the ACC championship game. It’s rare that the Pack gets that lucky, to get the ball to bounce its way in a game it doesn’t control. But after Friday’s wild night in Carter-Finley, anything is possible for this team.
“We’ll all be posted up somewhere watching B.C. and Wake,” Doeren said. “We’re Boston College Eagles fans tomorrow, hoping for something good to happen.”