For the first time in almost a year, the Bell Tower was lit in red in honor of an NC State football victory on Saturday.
The Wolfpack’s six-game losing streak dating back to last October came to a thrilling end with a 45-42 victory against Wake Forest at Carter-Finley Stadium that went almost as exactly according to plan, at least in some respects, with a few unexpected twists thrown in to make things interesting.
Here are some postgame observations …
- The game began with a surprise when Bailey Hockman was announced as the starting quarterback in place of Devin Leary, who missed too many practices during preseason camp because of contact tracing quarantines to be ready to play. Hockman started two games for the Wolfpack last season and he acquitted himself well for the most part, completing 16 of his 23 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. His performance was well on its way toward sparking a quarterback controversy, or at the very least a quarterback conversation, until he threw a pick six to Wake’s Ja’Sir Taylor that ended up making the game closer than it could have been.
- Regardless of who was at quarterback, new coordinator Tim Beck’s offense was everything it was cracked up to be. The Wolfpack spread the ball around, took full advantage of its veteran offensive and talented stable of backs to roll up 463 total yards and its highest scoring output against an ACC opponent since scoring 51 against Louisville in 2018. The ground game set the tone early with both Ricky Person and Zonovan Knight breaking off runs of 30-plus yards on the opening drive while in the air, Hockman completed passes to nine different receivers. There was even some trickeration involved with Person throwing a touchdown pass to wide receiver Devin Carter. Although Beck clearly lost some of his confidence in Hockman after the pick six, he still found ways to keep the Deacons’ off guard — most notably a screen pass to Knight that set up Person’s eventual game-winning touchdown.
- One more element of the offense that was different from the past couple of years, especially 2019. When the Wolfpack got the ball into the red zone, they scored touchdowns rather than settling for field goals. Christopher Dunn was called upon to make one three-pointer. State was 5 for 5 in the red zone with four touchdowns. In all, their 45 points came on six touchdowns and one 30-yard Dunn field goal
- On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson still has plenty of issues to work out before next week’s trip to Virginia Tech. You don’t give up 42 points and consider the effort a total success, regardless of the outcome. And yet, despite giving up 131 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Wake’s Kenny Walker and 236 yards through the air to quarterback Sam Hartman, the defense did come up big when its team needed it most. There were the three straight stops to begin the second half, a stretch that allowed the offense to score twice and open up a 35-21 lead. Then, with the Wolfpack clinging to a three-point lead late, the defense made it stand up by twice turning the ball over on downs.
- That final stand included a pair of sacks, the first by linebacker Vi Jones and the second by defensive end Daniel Joseph, to go along with a pass breakup by strong safety Rakeim Ashford. All three of those players are transfers who sas their first action for the Wolfpack on Saturday. Joseph, a grad transfer from Penn State had two sacks and five tackles. Jones, who sat out last year after coming over from Southern Cal, was part of a linebacking corps that lived up to its hype as the anchor of State’s defense and Ashford, a late arrival from Jones County Community College in Mississippi, was second on the team with 10 tackles to go along with the clinching PBU.
- Above and beyond all of that, the most encouraging factor in the win was the resilience the Wolfpack showed from start to finish. It began with the way the team rallied around its backup quarterback to help him get some rhythm early and continued from there. It’s doubtful last year’s team would have bounced back after Wake seized the momentum and ralled from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the score in the third quarter. And it certainly wouldn’t have had the pluck to regain the lead after falling behind the first time all night early in the fourth. There’s still a long way to go this season, only one game as Person noted in his postgame Zoom. But it sure is a lot better way to start than the alternative.
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