Wolfpack Rewind: A Character Win

Brett Friedlander

Now in his eighth season at NC State, Dave Doeren is the second-longest tenured coach in school history. But until Saturday, his teams had never rallied to win a game after trailing by 10 or more points.

That changed after the Wolfpack spotted Duke a 17-7 head start just before halftime, then roared from behind to win for the fourth time this season and third time in as many weeks.

Despite doing everything in its power to give the game away during a first half that saw it have a punt blocked for a touchdown, turn the ball over twice and commit eight penalties for 106 yards, State cleaned up its act over the final two periods for a 31-20 victory that catapulted it into the national rankings at No. 22 in the Coaches Poll and No. 23 in the AP Top 25.

But not all the news from the game was positive.

Here's a look back at the good, the bad and the offbeat from a game many previous Wolfpack teams likely would have lost:


The Wolfpack could have found itself in deep trouble after its offensive and special teams self-destructed during the opening 30 minutes Saturday. But instead of falling hopelessly behind like rival North Carolina did at Florida State later in the evening, State was able stay in contention because of the performance of its defense. Led by linebackers Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas -- who accounted for 42 tackles between them -- the Wolfpack neutralized a Duke running game that accounted for over 300 yards the previous week at Syracuse, forced three turnovers and produced its third goal line stands in as many weeks while limiting the Blue Devils to just three points in the second half. A unit that started the season as a liability by giving up 45 and 42 points in the first two games, has become a strength despite a spate of injuries that has turned the secondary into what Doeren referred to as "a revloving door."


For all the miscues of the first half, nothing that unfolded Saturday was worse than what happened to Devin Leary. With the Wolfpack looking to add to a 21-20 lead late in the third half, the sophomore quarterback took off running for a four-yard gain that gave State a first down. As he began to go down into a slide, he was hit high by Duke safety Lummie Young -- who led with his helmet and was ejected for targeting. At first, the concern was that Leary had suffered a concussion. But it soon became clear that his injury was to his left leg, which buckled under him when he was hit. And the injury was serious. Leary was 14 of 24 for 194 yards and a touchdown at the time. Sunday, it was revealed that he suffered a broken fibula that required surgery and will keep him sidelined for 4-8 weeks.


Both teams scored touchdowns on blocked punts in the first half. Duke struck first when Isaiah Fisher-Smith got a piece of Trenton Gill's kick, allowing teammate Dorian Mausi to pick it up and return it 32 yards for the score. State countered just before halftime when linebacker Vi Jones blocked his second punt in as many weeks, giving Max Fisher the opportunity to scoop and score from eight yards out. It was the first time in Wolfpack football history that both teams scored in such a manner and according to ESPN.com, it's the first time it's happened anywhere in college football since 2012.


Payton Wilson intercepts his second pass of the game SaturdayACC pool photo

Payton Wilson had a tough act to follow this week after his older brother Bryse pitched six strong innings to win Game 4 of the National League Championship Series for the Atlanta Braves. But the redshirt sophomore linebacker managed to put togther his own standout performance against the Blue Devils. His 19 tackles were the most by a state defender since Earl Wolff had 19 against Clemson in 1992. He also had two interceptions and half sack. He also found the time to tell his mom he loves here during a postgame Zoom. If Wilson isn't the ACC's Linebacker of the Week, they should stop giving out the award.


Isaac Duffy makes a tackle on Duke quarterback Chase BriceACC pool photo

Isaac Duffy is a former walkon who earned a scholarship because of his work on special teams. Saturday, though, the redshirt sophomore defensive back was called into service when safety Jakeen Harris was ejected for targeting early in the game. It was Duffy's first action from scrimmage and naturally, the Blue Devils decided to try and pick on him. But former Clayton High Comet was equal to the task. He was credited with four tackles and a team-leading two pass breakups while earning praise from Doeren after the game. 


The Wolfpack had three interceptions in the game, two by Wilson and one by sophomore reserve linebacker Jaylon Scott. Combined with the interceptions by Battle, Joshua Pierrie-Louis and Alim McNeill in the win at Virginia, it marked the first time since 2015 that State's defense picked off three passes in consecutive games. That year, the Wolfpack defense got three interceptions each against Boston College and Florida State. Wilson, by the way, became the first State defender with two picks in a game since Jerod Fernandez did it against top-ranked Florida State in 2014.


Leary, obviously, is the big one. But he wasn't the only key player to go down with what appeared to be a serious injury. Junior safety Tanner Ingle, who missed the Virginia Tech game with a hamstring injury and was down on the ground several times in the Pittsburgh game with various ailments, appeared to aggravate his hamstring again and didn't return to the game. It could be troublesome for an already thin secondary if Ingle is sidelined for an extended period, with both Rakeim Ashford and Khalid Martin already done for the year. The situation on the offensive line is almost as bad. Not only did starting tackle Justin Witt missed his third straight game Saturday and backup Timothy McKay missed his second because of injury, but State's other tackle, Tyrone Riley, left the game with what appeared to be a leg issue.


'I feel like this team together is close because we’ve gone through so much adversity together. We’ve gone through people making fun of our teams, saying we aren’t going to win any ACC games this year. They did a little talk show (on the ACC Network) about if we would win an ACC game. That definitely fuels us. That brings us closer together. We have a chip on our shoulder everytime we go out there. This year I can see it in our eyes. I can see it in the way that we are playing." Junior receiver Thayer Thomas

"Going into halftime we were just frustrated with what was going on because we were hurting ourselves. We were in the locker room telling each other ‘we’ve got to fix this.’ We had only beat ourselves. We went into halftime with a 0-0 attitude, and we came out and did what we normally do." Junior running back Ricky Person Jr.


With wins against both Wake Forest and Duke already in its pocket, the 22nd-ranked Wolfpack can complete the Big Four sweep and clinch the mythical state championship next Saturday with a win against No. 13 North Carolina. The Tar Heels are coming off their first loss of the season, a 31-28 loss at Florida State. Game time at Kenan Stadium is noon.