It almost feels odd to say, but the NC State defense carried the entire team in Orlando last night, and brought the underdog Wolfpack home with a 28-21 victory over the University of Central Florida. Despite the fact that UCF is a non-BCS team, the victory certainly belongs in the quality-win column, given that it was on the road and against a team that’s considered a favorite to win their division in Conference USA.
A three-point road dog, State dominated the first three quarters of play and appeared to be on cruise control for an easy win until Central Florida sat starting QB Rob Calabrese due to his ineffectiveness and brought in freshman Jeff Godfrey. The former Florida prep 6-A player of the year ignited the Golden Knights moribund offense and quickly made it a game that came down to the last UCF series over the last two minutes of the game. He had the Knights marching towards a tie until NC State’s Brandon Bishop separated UCF’s Quincy McDuffie from the football – and any hope – on the Pack 11 yard line in the waning moments. Three kneel-down formations later, a relieved and happy Wolfpack squad brought home the win and their first 2-0 start since the 2002 season.
Linebacker Audi Cole led the team with 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss (19 yards), one sack (10 yards) and an interception. The former Golden Gloves boxer was literally all over the field and had a highlight-reel interception that shut down a Central Florida trickeration pass play.
C.J. Wilson, a member of the oft-maligned secondary, had a 43-yard interception return for the touchdown that gave the Wolfpack its winning margin.
No one seemed happier after the win than Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien. “That was a heck of a win for our team,” he said. “A couple of big, big turnovers were the difference in the game, but it’s always that way. Turnovers and penalties decide games.” For a change, it was the Wolfpack forcing the mistakes instead of making them, and ultimately that — as well as the revived defense — made the difference.
The offensive attack of the Wolfpack had a decidedly mixed night. N.C. State had only 239 yards total offense, including just 79 in the second half, but at times in first half, they were able to move the ball at will against a stout UCF defense. Tailback Dean Haynes scored from four yards after an interception and later, freshman Mustafa Greene had a 21-yard scoring run to cap a quick three-play drive after NC State recovered a UCF fumble. Russell Wilson also hit Darrell Davis with a 26-yard scoring pass to finish off an 83-yard scoring drive, giving the Pack a 21-0 halftime lead.
In the second half, State’s was far more ineffective as UCF’s outstanding defensive line players found ways to penetrate the NC State backfield and repeatedly disrupted plays. The Wolfpack’s play-calling never seemed to be able effectively counter the UCF rush, and all too often in the second thirty minutes the Pack would be forced to punt after one or two series of downs.
Special teams continues to be an Achilles Heels for State – they gave up a 93-yard touchdown run to UCF’s Latavius Murray, they had several penalties, and the thrilling end of the game scenario was initially set up by a shanked punt by Wolfpack kicker Jeff Ruiz — his flubbed kicked with a little more than two minutes left in the game with the Pack hanging on to a 28-21 lead gave the ball back to a rejuvenated and effective UCF offense on the Wolfpack 49 yard line.
All in all, the win was ugly, and like all ugly wins, it was a decidedly mixed bag for the Wolfpack. Fortunately, however, there are no pictures in the win-loss column, where State looks good: 2-0. They still have much to work on — Russell Wilson needs to return to form, the O-line needs to find consistency, the special teams needs to become effective and the defense needs to work on outside containment when they are facing spread formations. Those improvements will need to come fast, because the Pack returns to the friendly confines of Carter-Finley after a very short break, where they will face the Bearcats of Cincinnati in a nationally televised contest this coming Thursday evening.