SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The NC State football team couldn’t have drawn up a better start Saturday at Notre Dame.
The middle and end didn’t go nearly as well.
The 14th-ranked Wolfpack quieted a festive crowd at Notre Dame Stadium by scoring touchdowns on a blocked punt and a pass from Ryan Finley to Kelvin Harmon to take an early lead. But things deteriorated quickly from there, as the ninth-ranked Irish wore State’s usually stout defense down and pulled away for a 35-14 victory that snapped the Wolfpack’s six-game winning streak.
“That’s how you want to start, fast,” said linebacker Germaine Pratt, who pounced on the ball in the end zone after the punt block by teammate James Smith-Williams to put his team up 7-0 just five minutes into the game. “That was a big emphasis for us. We just have to execute better (for the rest of the game).”
Notre Dame (7-1) bounced right back after State’s quick strike by taking just two plays to score a touchdown of its own.
But the Wolfpack (6-2) wasn’t phased.
After an exchange of punts, Harmon outjumped a Notre Dame defender for a 15-yard completion in the end zone that put State back ahead 14-7 on the second play of the second quarter.
Again, the Irish came right back with a score of its own — this time driving 72 yards on 14 plays to tie the score and begin a run that saw it score the game’s final 28 points.
“They answered both times,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said, “which is what a good team is supposed to do.”
Elite teams also make big plays when they need them most to extend drives, score points and break the spirit of an upstart opponent still in the process of learning what it takes to win at the the highest level.
Notre Dame did just that Saturday.
And it wasn’t always with spectacular plays like the 77-yard run Heisman Trophy candidate Josh Adams reeled off in the third quarter on the way to an impressive 202-yard performance.
More often than not, the Irish dismantled the Wolfpack in small bits with plays such as quarterback Brian Wimbush’s 20-yard scramble on a third-and-10 play to extend one touchdown drive, and a spectacular lunging catch in which tight end Durham Smythe tiptoed the sideline to get both feet in bounds and set up the go-ahead score late in the half.
While everything Notre Dame did seemed to work out for the best, the Wolfpack hurt itself with a series of uncharacteristic mistakes.
Among the more glaring were the season-high 11 penalties it committed in the first half alone.
Doeren made it clear in his postgame comments — without saying anything that could get him fined — that he wasn’t thrilled with the performance of the ACC officiating crew. The call that had him hottest under the collar was an infraction that wasn’t even called.
It came on the opening possession of the second half, when with State facing a third-and-10 play from the Irish 42, a Notre Dame defender appeared to jump offside.
Center Garrett Bradbury, as he’s trained to do, snapped the ball quickly to give the Wolfpack what he thought would be a free play.
Only it turned out to be costly when the officials failed to throw a flag and Notre Dame’s Julian Love jumped in front of Harmon to pick the ball off. It was Finley’s first interception in 339 pass attempts this season and it went for a 69-yard touchdown that increased the Irish’s lead to 28-14.
“I thought they encroached and we snapped it,” said Finley, who finished 17 of 37 for 213 yards. “That’s on me. I’ve got to make sure he throws the flag. It’s only offside if he throws the flag.”
As damaging as the pivotal play might have been, it still didn’t signal the end of the Wolfpack’s chances.
That happened on the ensuing possession when after getting a 58-yard kickoff return by Jaylen Samuels and driving down to the Notre Dame 6, Reggie Gallaspy was stopped on a fourth-and-1 play to end the threat.
Gallaspy was in the game only because leading rusher Nyheim Hines injured his ankle early in the game and didn’t return after carrying the ball just twice for a total of six yards.
Without Hines, State gained just 50 yards on the ground, an inability to run the ball that also had a negative effect on its ability to throw the ball.
“That hurt, because Nyheim is an impactful kind of player,” Harmon said. “Him not being there definitely changed some things up. But the team has to step up and overcome it.”
Not only did State lose Hines, whose ankle injury isn’t believed to be serious, its defense was weakened by injuries that forced the Wolfpack to play without end Darian Roseboro, tackle Justin Jones and his backup Eurndraus Bryant.
Their absence had at least some impact on the bigger, stronger Irish’s ability to pile up 318 yards on the ground against a unit ranked No. 1 in the ACC and No. 6 nationally against the run.
“It’s just disappointing,” Doeren said. “I really wish we were at full strength in that game. I was really looking forward to being a four quarter game, but we just didn’t have it.”