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Pair of critical stops by Wolfpack defense were the difference in win over Tar Heels

·4 min read
Robert Willett

Everyone will remember the onside kick. Generations of N.C. State fans will remember both of Emeka Emezie’s fourth quarter touchdown catches.

Devin Leary cemented his legacy, throwing four touchdowns and passing Philip Rivers for the single-season touchdown record.

Wolfpack fans will remember exactly where they took their selfies on the grass after storming the field when N.C. State came from behind to defeat rival North Carolina, 34-30.

It was a miracle, it was improbable, it was one of the greatest wins in Wolfpack history. It secured another nine-win season for Dave Doeren, a perfect record at home and a win on Senior Day.

Fans will remember all of that. But will they remember how they got to that point?

What will probably get lost in the offensive explosion and second field rush of the season were the two stops by the defense in the fourth quarter. UNC kicker Grayson Atkins hit two field goals in the final eight minutes. His first kick, from 21-yards, put North Carolina up six, 27-21, with 7:44 remaining.

His second, this time from 50-yards away, made it a nine-point game with 3:16 remaining. Those two stops, three instead of six, gave the Wolfpack a chance.

“They’re tough, they just keep fighting and scrapping and finding ways to make plays,” Doeren said about his defense. “The guys just dug deep and found a way to stop them. That was so close to an interception on third down there with Jakeen (Harris). It was a great stop, we needed it.”

Doeren was referencing the first stop, when UNC quarterback Sam Howell drove the Heels to the N.C. State four. On third and goal, Howell attempted a tunnel screen to wide receiver Josh Downs. Harris was all over it, breaking up the pass, nearly intercepting the ball. North Carolina head coach Mack Brown took a timeout and it looked like for a moment the Heels were contemplating going for it. But Atkins came out and booted the kick through the uprights.

His second field goal, this time after a stop at the N.C. State 33, appeared to seal the game. But a nine-point deficit with plenty of time on the clock left the door open. All the Pack needed was a chance.

“Our biggest thing was just to stay together,” defensive tackle Cory Durden said. “If we kept them out the box … the mindset was to make them earn it. When they got on the four yard line we made them earn it.”

The N.C. State defense has been solid all season, but had their struggles against the UNC running game. The Tar Heels rushed for 297 yards, the most the Pack has given up on the ground all season. On the first drive that resulted in an Atkins field goal, UNC only rushed the ball three times. Once the Heels got inside the 11, they settled for five straight passes from Howell.

On North Carolina’s next offensive possession, they rushed the ball six straight times in an attempt to burn some clock. A combination of runs from Howell and British Brooks moved the ball to the 33. But Daniel Joseph (10 tackles) and Tanner Ingle (8) stopped Brooks for no gain. Once again, UNC settled for a field goal.

That’s when the offensive magic happened.

On second and 18, Leary found Emezie wide open for a 64-yard score. Dunn recovered the onside kick next and three plays later, Leary hit Emezie again, this time for a 24-yard score. Six plays later, Derrek Pitts picked off Howell in the back of the endzone and the celebration started.

If the defense doesn’t come up with those two stops, there is no celebration, there’s no Leary touchdown record, no more catches for Emezie. The Pack doesn’t have a nine-win season, now with a chance for 10. The defense didn’t have its best night, but showed up when Wolfpack Nation needed them the most.

“Us just having that mentality, bend don’t break,” linebacker Vi Jones said. “We just stayed persistent, doing what we are supposed to do, doing what we’re coached to do. Only giving away three points that drive was almost a win for the defense.”

Those two stops led to a win for the whole team.

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