Wolfpack Rewind: Bad Night at Blacksburg

Brett Friedlander

If NC State's season opening football victory against Wake Forest was a promising harbinger for a new season, then Saturday's 45-24 loss to Virginia Tech was a painful flashback to a forgettable 2019.

There were turnovers, injuries, a defense that couldn't stop anything and a change at quarterback. Here's a look back at the good, the bad and the offbeat from a frustrating night in Blacksburg ...

THE GOOD

Coach Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Tim Beck waited way too long to pull the trigger on a quarterback change that has been inevitable since Bailey Hockman took the first snap of the season last week against the Deacons. By the time they finally relented and sent Devin Leary into the game midway through the third quarter -- after Hockman's second interception of the game -- it was far late to affect the outcome. But Leary's performance once he took over did at least offer some promise moving forward. The redshirt sophomore showed why Doeren named him the starter back in the spring by zipping a 36-yard dart to Devin Carter to convert a fourth-and-nine situation, then hitting C.J. Riley in the end zone for a touchdown. Leary finished 12 of 16 for 165 yards while leading the Wolfpack to a pair of scores in his brief stint. It's a virtual certainty he will be the starter next week in Pittsburgh.

THE BAD

Yes, State was playing without three of its top defensive starters -- linebacker Payton Wilson, safety Tanner Ingle and cornerback Teshaun Smith -- and that did contribute somewhat to the Hokies' 314-yard rushing performance. But the fact is that the Wolfpack had just as much trouble stopping the run a week earlier when all three of those players were in the lineup. Going back even farther, State's defense has now allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven of its last eight games. A recurring problem over the first two games of this season -- in which Wake's Kenneth Walker and Virginia Tech's Khalil Herbert joined that club of 100-yard rushers -- has been the Wolfpack's shoddy tackling. But there are structural problems as well, especially on the edges. After the Wake game, Doeren said that the defensive mistakes are correctable. So far, though, they remain uncorrected.

THE OFFBEAT 

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente wasn't blowing smoke when he worried earlier in the week about not having a full roster for Saturday's game. Because of COVID-19 and contact tracing quarantines, the Hokies were down 24 players against the Wolfpack, including 13 on the offensive side of the ball. Among them were starting quarterback Hendon Hooker and cornerback Jermaine Waller. Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton was also in isolation, along with three other members of Fuente's staff. 

NCSU at VT 006
Tyler Baker-Williams makes a tackle on Virginia Tech's Tre TurnerACC pool photo

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

It's never a good sign when your punter is your best player, but that was the case for the Wolfpack on Saturday. Trenton Gill did, however, enhance his stature as a Ray Guy Award candidate by averaging 51.0 yards on his six kicks. Four of the six traveled better than 50 yards with two being downed inside the 20. 

STAT OF THE WEEK

Christopher Dunn's 53-yard field goal on the final play of the first half was the longest of his career. It matched the fourth-longest three-pointer in school history and was the longest by a Wolfpack placekicker since John Deraney made a 54-yardrd in 2006. Damon Hartman's 56-yarder in 1990 is the school record. Dunn now has a streak of 13 straight made field goals dating back to last season.

UNSUNG HERO

C.J. Riley missed all but one quarter of the first game last season because of a knee injury. He was listed as inactive for last week's 2020 opener. He finally returned to action Saturday and made his first catch in nearly two years -- for a touchdown, no less -- when Leary hit him in the end zone for a seven-yard score midway through the fourth quarter. He finished the night with two catches for 24 yards.

INJURY REPORT

The Wolfpack started the game without last year's leading tackler, linebacker Payton Wilson, as well as starting safety Tanner Ingle and cornerback Teshaun Smith. During the game, two other safeties left the game with injuries -- Rakeim Ashford and Khalid Martin.

Martin's injury was a scary one. He laid motionless on the ground for several minutes after making a tackle late in the third quarter. He was taken from the field in an ambulance and spent the night in the hospital with what was termed a hip injury. The good news is that he was released on Sunday, but it is not known how long he will be out of action.

THEY SAID IT

"We didn’t talk about it at halftime. We thought we would be able to regroup and come out and get some things going. We just didn’t. After the second interception, we said ‘let’s give him another series and see how he responds.’ We went three-and-out that drive and just felt like we needed a spark and to just see what Devin can do." Coach Dave Doeren on the decision to pull Hockman in favor of Leary.

"It’s a long season. One game doesn’t define who we are. We know we aren’t the team that we played like today. We’ve got to fix it in film. We’ve got to get back to it next week." Junior linebacker Isaiah Moore

NEXT UP

It doesn't get any easier for the Wolfpack next Saturday when it takes to the road again for a game against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. The Panthers are off to an impressive 3-0 start following Saturday's win against Louisville and are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll. Kickoff is noon.

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