Wolfpack Overcomes Mistakes, Injuries to Dump Duke

Kenton Gibbs

In what was objectively NC State’s sloppiest game of the year thus far, the Wolfpack did the only things that matters most.

It won.

The Wolfpack improved to 4-1, despite injuries to standout quarteback Devin Leary and team captain Tanner Ingle, an ejection in the already thin secondary for the third straight game, 100 yards in penalties and 1-4 Duke team playing its best defensive football of the season.

This was a game that had all the makings of a letdown loss typical of those of State teams in the past. But this time, the Wolfpack found a way to win, thanks to some timely plays and a Herculean effort on defense spearheaded by linebacker Payton Wilson. 

His 19 tackles were the most in a game by a State player since Earl Wolff in 2012. The redshirt sophomore also intercepted two pass and recorded a half sack.

"Coach Gibson put me in a great spot to make plays and we had a great week of practice," said Wilson, referring to defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. "Coach (Dave) Doeren has been telling us since Day One that the way we practice is the way we’re going to play. We had a great week of practice, which led to a pretty good performance."

It didn't start that way, though.

Duke came out the gates smoking in the opening half, getting on the scoreboard first with a punt block return that was returned for a touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead. The  teams then traded turnovers and punts before the Blue Devils added a field goal to up their advantage to 10-0 after 15 minutes.

The Wolfpack seemed lifeless and put itself in danger of letting the game get away, thanks to a multitide of self-inflicted mistakes that included eight first half penalties for 106 yards. But it finally began to show signs of life with a second quarter drive that was master class by offensive coordinator Tim Beck.  

The methodical 12-play sequence ended with a one yard touchdown run by Jordan Houston that cut the lead to 10-7.

Instead of gaining momentum, the Wolfpack gave it right back to the Blue Devils when instead of getting a quick three-and-out on the next possession, a running into the punter penalty allowed Duke to extend its drive.

Add on a personal foul call on defensive end Savion Jackson and State practically gifted its Triangle neighbors the touchdown that extended the lead back to 10.

That's when the Wolfpack began to buckle down.

With 45 seconds left in the half, linebacker Vi Jones broke through and returned the blocked punt favor to Duke. It was his second block in two weeks. Wide receiver-turned-defensive back Max Fisher scooped the ball up and returned it eight yards for the touchdown.

Although Duke tacked on a field goal as time expired to go up 20-14 at halftime, State went into the break feeling good about its chances.

"I feel like the first quarter and halfway through the second quarter, they were sort of bringing it to us," said junior receiver Thayer Thomas. "They sort of punched first, as you would say. I think the key moment of the game was right before halftime where we blocked that punt and scored.

"I feel like that definitely changed the momentum of the rest of the game. After Devin got hurt, we went down and drove and scored and that fired us up as an offense, to go down there and do what we’re supposed to do."

First, though, there was one more turnover. An early fumble gave the ball to Duke on the cusp of the red zone and it quickly moved the ball to the Wolfpack four. 

As we’ve talked about before, this was prime time for State to relax into the role of inconsistency and complacency with previous success. But this time was different.

The Wolfpack had already come up with one red zone stop on Wilson’s first interception. This time, the defense added to its claim on the moniker: Goal Line U by coming up with its  third goal line stand in as many weeks. 

From that point on, it was all State.

First the offense gained a little wiggle room by moving the ball out from the one before having to punt. Three plays later, Duke quarterback Chase Brice was blasted by Drake Thomas as he delivered the ball and Wilson was Johnny on the spot again for his second pick of the night.

State then converted that into its first lead of the game with a five-play, 62-yard drive that saw Leary hit hit back-to-back passes of 20 and 36 yards before hitting tight end Cary Angeline with a pop pass in the end zone that turned out to be Leary’s last completion of the night. 

On the next drive, after another hasty three-and-out, Leary took a hard hit by Duke safety Lummie Young as he attempted to slide at the end of a nice run. Young was ejected for targeting, but he wasn't the only one that had to leave the game.

Leary was carted off the field after that play but was seen on the sidelines with a boot and crutches afterwards.

Despite the emotional loss, State didn't miss a beat as backup Bailey Hockman -- the team's starter in a season opening win against Wake Forest in its most recent home game before Saturday -- hit Thomas for a touchdown that extended the advantage to 28-20.

Thomas made the catch by pinning the ball against his helmet after it was tipped by a Duke defender. Christopher Dunn closed things out with a field goal that finally put the Blue Devils away.

A win is a win and there’s a ton of grit and heart to celebrate in it. But there were a lot of rough edges in this one that need to be smoothed out. 

They're mistakes on which Duke was unable to capitalize, but could create a runaway against North Carolina and Miami, the State's next two opponents and teams that have made their opponents pay for such missteps all year long.

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