Wilson's 4 TDs lead Pack to 28-27 Win over UNC
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. – The only throw NC State sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson wished he had back was the one he threw high into the stands of Carter-Finley Stadium, just after the final seconds ticked off the clock of NC State's 28-27 victory over No. 23 North Carolina, setting off an on-field celebration with his teammates.
As soon as he let the ball go, Wilson thought about absent offensive coordinator Dana Bible, who was diagnosed earlier this week with a form of leukemia and was watching the game from his isolated hospital room UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
Fortunately, according to Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien, a student manager went into the stands and retrieved the ball. The coach, who talked with Bible long after the game was over, plans to give it to his long-time friend when the time is right.
Wilson talked several times to Bible prior to Saturday's game, including two strategy conversations on Friday.
"He gave me a pregame talk to get me ready, to tell me about the defense and what I can do here and there," Wilson said. "That just shows how much he loves coaching this team.
"I know how hard it has to be for him, when you are away from something you love. He told me to persevere, told me to keep my mind in the right spot, make sure I see the defense and play the game the way I know how to."
It was an emotional afternoon on a number of levels for both teams. The Wolfpack, with no chance to finish with a winning season or qualify for the post-season, was playing its bowl game, hoping to grasp something to hold on to until the start of next season. And the team's 17 seniors were just hoping to end their careers on a high note.
The Tar Heels, who will play a post-season game, had hoped to be able to move up in the ACC's pecking order and to end head coach Butch Davis' losing streak to UNC's next-door rival. But those dreams ended as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
The game was decided on the arms and legs of Wilson, who threw four touchdown passes, and the team's injury-riddled defense, which stepped up to make big plays in the final half of the season.
The Tar Heels jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead, scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The first was a 35-yard pass from quarterback T.J. Yates to Jheranie Boyd. The second was on a 40-yard end around run by Johnny White. And the final was 70-yard pass from quarterback Yates to Boyd.
But the Wolfpack defense held strong in the second half, holding UNC to just three points in two quarters.
"We gave up too many big plays in the first half," said O'Brien, who remains a perfect 3-0 against the Tar Heels since arriving at NC State in 2007. "It wasn't like they were doing anything sustained at all. We had to take away the big plays. Once we did that, to make them work and drive, we had much better success."
And several seniors made some big plays after Wilson grabbed the lead in the second half with a pair of scoring passes to his favorite down-field receiver, junior Owen Spencer. Wilson hit Spencer on a 56-yard post pass that Spencer hauled in off his facemask to close the gap to 24-21.
After Tar Heel kicker Casey Barth hit a 20-yard field goal to push the lead back to six points, Wilson came back and hit Spencer with a 38-yard touchdown pass with 14:31 remaining that gave the Wolfpack the lead for good.
But O'Brien's defense needed a couple of big plays to hold off the Tar Heel offense. First, defensive end Willie Young made several big stops that ended North Carolina's last sustained drive, including a tackle 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage that forced the Tar Heels to settle for a field goal attempt instead of going for a more devastating touchdown.
When Barth came on to try a 38-yarder with four and a half minutes to play, senior Alan-Michael Cash tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage and it never reached the goal line, much less the goal post.
Finally, after Wilson led his team to three first downs, chewing most of the usable time off the clock, the Tar Heels had one final chance to regain the lead, taking over on downs at its own 28-yard line with 23 seconds to play. But Yates' pass down the sidelines was intercepted by Wolfpack senior safety Clem Johnson.
"The seniors never gave up, in this game or in this season," said O'Brien, who noted the long string of injuries that cost his team more than a dozen players throughout the season. "They kept fighting through. It paid off for them today and it will pay off for this program in the long run. There are many times this thing could have folded and gone south.
"We are like a M*A*S*H unit out there. Every day, somebody breaks this or hurts that. It's a disaster out there right now."
With the win, the Wolfpack finished the season at 5-7 overall, 2-6 in the ACC. It was a disappointing season by O'Brien's standard, one he is happy to put behind him.
"This is the hardest year I have ever been through," said the coach. "You start off, your best defensive football player [linebacker Nate Irving] almost kills himself in the summer. You end the year with your offensive coordinator in the hospital with cancer. In the middle, we lost a couple more guys."
Things never let up. In the last week alone, backup quarterback Mike Glennon suffered a shoulder injury, and regulars Audi Augustin and De'Andre Morgan were both out because of injuries. Early in the second half, cornerback Jarvis Byrd, suffered a knee sprain and did not return. He was replaced by walk-on corner Jordan Monk, who made several big plays on UNC last drive to prevent a score.
"Thank God it's over," O'Brien said. "I don't think we could go play in a bowl game if we had to. As disappointing as this season has been, we are going to look back and say things have turned around [for the future].
"Maybe [because of] today."
The Tar Heels (8-4 overall, 4-4 ACC) were hampered by their emotions at times in the contest, committing 10 penalties on 122 yards. On one of the Wolfpack's second-quarter touchdown drives, the Heels committed three penalties - two pass interference, one unsportsmanlike personal foul - that accounted for 44 of the drive's 77 yards.
"We didn't play very smart today," Davis said. "The penalties really hurt us. You can't have that many penalties, but especially on big plays like we did today. We gave them other opportunities and took scores off the board for us."
But it was Wilson – who finished the season with 31 touchdown passes, the second most in school history – that caused the most damage to the Tar Heels. He completed 20 of his 27 passes for 259 yards. He kept the Pack in the game early on with touchdown throws of six and 14 yards to Jarvis Williams, who finished the year with 11 touchdown receptions.
Wilson then finished off the Tar Heels with long passes to Spencer, who finished the year with an NCAA-leading 24.42-yard-per-catch average. He broke his own school record for average yards per catch, which he set last year.
"[Wilson] is just an athlete," Davis said. "His ability to throw the football really showed today. We did a good job of keeping him running, but he is so good at making big plays and when he is able to do that, those are the kind that are back-breakers."
The Wolfpack also kept its penalties to just five for 40 yards, held the Tar Heels to 2-for-10 on third down conversions and did not commit a turnover. Those are just a few of the reasons O'Brien's team won despite being out-gained 481-335 in total offense.
"Our kids didn't lack for confidence," O'Brien said. "We have said before, any time Russell has the ball in his hands, we have those big wideouts and they can get down there and get open. He is pretty good at getting the ball up to them."
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.