Pack Wins 4th Straight Over Tar Heels, 29-25
BY TIM PEELER
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Touchdowns beat field goals just about every time.
And NC State scored seven on two spectacular plays in the second half of Saturday's game against North Carolina -- a fourth-and-goal Hail Mary pass and an 87-yard punt return by junior T.J. Graham -- and held on for a 29-25 victory at UNC's Kenan Stadium.
Despite those touchdowns erasing UNC's 19-10 advantage, the Wolfpack (8-3 overall, 5-2 ACC) still needed a defensive stop on a two-point conversion with just over a minute to play to secure its fourth straight win over its biggest rival.
"This is the greatest highlight of my career," said senior linebacker Nate Irving of another win over the Tar Heels. "So far."
The defense held strong, and a 57-yard punt by senior Jeff Ruiz backed the Tar Heels too deep on their own side of the field. Linebacker Terrell Manning sacked UNC quarterback T.J. Yates in the end zone to provide the final points of the game with 27 seconds on the clock.
With the victory, the Wolfpack remained in the driver's seat for the Atlantic Division berth in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 4, heading into next week's regular-season finale at Maryland.
Saturday's most dramatic play came late in the third quarter when the Wolfpack, trailing by nine, opted to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal from UNC's 2-yard line. Quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled backwards on three occasions to get away from pressure, escaping the grasp of Donte Paige-Moss, then threw a desperation pass into a mass of players in the right rear corner of the end zone.
North Carolina's Da'Norris Searcy tipped the ball and Darrell Davis, falling out of bounds, batted it backwards, into the arms of Wolfpack wide receiver Owen Spencer, who caught the ball as he was falling to the ground for an unlikely touchdown.
"It was a prayer, and it was answered," Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien said.
An official review confirmed the score, but both teams lost a player in the emotional scrum that followed. Both North Carolina's Kevin Reddick and NC State's Jarvis Williams were ejected from the game for an altercation after the play.
The Hail Mary pass was Wilson's second breathtaking play on the drive. Earlier, on third and 18 near midfield, Wilson dropped back to pass, but decided to keep after he found no open receivers. He crossed the line of scrimmage, cut back left across the field and kept running until he was forced out of bounds 34 yards later. North Carolina was flagged for a late hit out of bounds on the play, putting the ball on the UNC 4-yard line.
"That was Russell being Russell," said NC State coach Tom O'Brien. "I don't have any explanation for what he sees."
The Tar Heel defense stuffed the Wolfpack on three consecutive plays, but O'Brien chose to go for a touchdown that would cut North Carolina's lead to 19-17.
"I rolled out and there was nothing there," Wilson said. "I tried to fake them out with a spin move, to try to get free. Then I realized it was fourth and two, so we had to get something. I was pretty sure I was throwing to Jarvis. I saw a couple of big guys back there. I knew there were three of them back there.
"It was crazy."
The play seemed to demoralize the Heels, who had maintained momentum throughout the first three quarters. They made only one first down on their next possession, punting the ball to Graham, the Wolfpack's speedy junior wide receiver and punt returner.
Graham received the ball on the 13-yard line, headed toward the left sideline and went untouched into the end zone, the longest punt return ever by a UNC opponent and tied for the third-longest punt return in NC State history.
"We have been waiting all year for TJ to take off and do that," O'Brien said. "I am glad he waited until today, because they didn't expect it. It was a great time to head on down the sideline.
"I thought one of our coaches was going to pull a hamstring running down the sideline with him.
The touchdown gave the Wolfpack a 24-19 lead. After another three-and-out possession by North Carolina's offense, placekicker Josh Czajkowski booted a 24-yard field goal with 5:41 remaining in the game to give NC State an eight-point cushion.
North Carolina came back to life late in the game, driving the length of the field in three minutes to the NC State 8-yard line to set up some late-game dramatics. On first and goal, a blitzing Irving sacked North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates for a five-yard loss. On third and goal, Yates hit receiver Erik Highsmith on a pass over the middle that was originally called a touchdown.
The officials determined that Highsmith's knee was down at the 1-yard line, creating a fourth-and-goal. The Tar Heels scored easily on the next play, when Yates hit wide open tight end Christian Wilson in the middle of the end zone.
Yates tried to throw another pass on the two-point-conversion attempt, but he was chased out of the pocket to the right, just as Wilson had been earlier in the game, and threw a floater to the same spot in the end zone where Spencer made his game-changing catch. The Wolfpack secondary knocked the ball down, preserving the lead at 27-25.
The Tar Heels failed to successfully execute an on-sides kick and the Wolfpack held on for its fourth consecutive win in the series.
UNC placekicker Casey Barth kicked four field goals in the second and third quarters, allowing the Tar Heels to build a 19-10 advantage with 4:38 remaining in the third quarter.
The two teams traded field goals at the end of the first half, with the Tar Heels taking a 13-10 lead into intermission.
The Tar Heels dominated the first quarter, making three trips into Wolfpack territory and outgaining NC State, 145 to 32 in total yards, and holding the ball 10:24 to NC State's 4:36. But UNC managed only one trip to the end zone.
On its first punt, NC State was flagged for fair-catch interference, moving the Tar Heels well into Wolfpack territory. But on the second play, UNC receiver Ed Barham had the ball stripped out of his hands by Wolfpack linebacker Nate Irving.
Sophomore defensive tackle Brian Slay recovered the ball on the NC State 28-yard line.
The Tar Heels, led by senior running back Anthony Elzy, made the most of their next trip into Wolfpack territory. Yates hit Elzy on a 52-yard strike to the NC State 23. After David Akinniyi sacked Yates for a 13-yard loss, Elzy gained 20 yards on a screen pass, then busted through the line for a seven-yard touchdown run to give UNC a 7-0 lead with 4:34 remaining in the first quarter.
Yates completed all 11 of his first-quarter passes before throwing back-to-back incompletions on his first two passes of the second quarter.
Wilson brought the Wolfpack back quickly in the second half, thanks primarily to a 48-yard pass to Owen Spencer deep into North Carolina territory. UNC's Deunta Williams was also flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty after the play, putting the Wolfpack on the Tar Heels' 2-yard line.
On second and goal, Wilson then hit senior Darrell Davis on a two-yard touchdown pass with 10:30 remaining in the first half, capping a nine-play, 87-yard drive. It was Wilson's 23rd touchdown pass of the season, which ranks fourth in school history.
On the Pack's next possession, Wilson threw his first career interception against the Tar Heels, when Searcy stepped in front of a flair pass at the NC State 39-yard line.
The Tar Heels drove to the NC State 2-yard line, but settled for a 19-yard Barth field goal to start the barrage of three-pointers.
North Carolina committed three penalties on the Pack's ensuing drive: an illegal block on the kickoff return, a defensive holding on a pass play and an offsides that put the Pack on UNC's 26-yard line. But Wilson was pressured heavily on his next two plays, losing three yards on a sack.
Czajkowski, who was thought to be done for the season with a hamstring injury, came on to kick a 47-yard field goal with 1:08 on the clock. It was just one yard off his personal record, a 48-yarder against Maryland last season.
Yates quickly led his team back into field-goal position, however, with five passes in the two-minute offense. With 15 seconds remaining in the half, Barth made a career-longest 49-yard field goal to give his team a 13-10 advantage.
He hit a 21-yarder on North Carolina's first possession of the second half, extending the lead to 16-10.
The victory makes next week's regular-season finale at Maryland huge for the Wolfpack's hopes to get to the ACC title game.
"It's great to win eight games, but the best thing about it is that we now have a chance to win nine," O'Brien said. "That's where we have to go from here. We don't want to stop at eight.
"We're not a satisfied football team at all."
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.