RALEIGH — It was the kind of game the NC State football team has always seemed to find a way to lose.
At home against a shorthanded ACC foe with a huge showdown with Clemson coming up next, the Wolfpack did everything it could to shoot itself in the foot Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium. It turned the ball over four times, had two kicks blocked and failed to score over the final 18 minutes.
And yet somehow it still managed to come away with a victory.
Coach Dave Doeren’s 23rd-ranked team got a late stop from its unheralded defense and just enough from an uncharacteristically self-destructive offense to hold off Boston College 28-23 and head into its off week with an unblemished 5-0 record.
As discouraging as some aspects of State’s performance might have been, the end result only added to the confidence of a Wolfpack team that has put itself in position to take the next step as a serious Atlantic Division contender.
“I definitely think that’s a game we probably would have lost in the past,” said senior wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who led his team with 10 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. “It shows a lot about the character of this team now.
“We’ve got to be resilient. I think we definitely showed we can handle all the punches and roll with the tides.”
It’s a resiliency upon which the Wolfpack wouldn’t have had to rely had it played its normally clean game. It was clearly the dominant team statistically, outgaining the Eagles 533-318 while going 10 for 15 on third downs and having running backs Reggie Gallaspy and Ricky Person both rush for nearly 100 yards.
But State (2-0 ACC) was anything but clean.
The string of self-inflicted mistakes began shortly after quarterback Ryan Finley methodically marched his team down the field for a tone-setting touchdown on its opening possession. But instead of building on the early momentum following a defensive stop, the Wolfpack gave it right back when freshmen Thayer Thomas chose not to call a fair catch on BC punt.
Thomas was hit just as he caught the ball, creating a fumble that turned into an Eagles’ field goal four plays later.
State’s woes only mounted on its next two possessions when Finley, who had been intercepted only once all season coming into the game, was picked off twice inside BC territory.
The first came on a third down play from the 4-yard line when the graduate quarterback tried to force the ball in to Person at the goal line. The second came on a pass across the middle in which Finley didn’t see linebacker Kevin Bletzer cut in front of Meyers coming across the middle on a slant.
But while the turnovers undoubtedly cost the Wolfpack points, the damage was limited by an inspired defensive unit that got the ball right back with three-and-outs both times.
“Shout out to our defense,” said Finley, who went 25 of 34 for 308 yards and two touchdowns. “We put them in some really tough situations and they continued to bounce back. It was a really, really good performance by those guys.”
State’s defense had the advantage of not having to face BC’s A.J. Dillon, the nation’s third-leading rusher who missed the game with an ankle injury.
That, however, doesn’t diminish a first half effort Doeren said was “as good as they could” have played. The Eagles (4-2, 1-1) managed only 51 yards on the ground, 105 yards total and four first downs over the opening 30 minutes.
In the meantime, the Wolfpack’s offense finally began to find its rhythm with touchdowns on the final two possessions of the half to extend its lead to 20-3.
Although kicker Chris Dunn had a chip shot field goal blocked on the opening possession of the second half, State came right back with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Finley to Kelvin Harmon that appeared to put the game away with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
As it turned out, the 28 points was enough for State to hold on for the win.
But just barely.
“We made it tough on ourselves,” Harmon said. “But we still came up and we finished it.”
The BC comeback began with a five-play drive late in the third quarter than ended with the only two big plays the Wolfpack defense allowed all day — a 28-yard keeper by quarterback Anthony Brown and a 21-yard scoring run by Dillon’s replacement Ben Glines. The Eagles then inched closer by turning a Person fumble into another Glines touchdown.
The damage might have been even worse if not for a heads-up play on BC’s next possession by linebacker Germaine Pratt, who saved another BC touchdown by stripping the ball out of Glines’ hands just before he reached the end zone.
“He practices that all the time, so I knew that was going to happen at least one time this year,” defensive tackle Eurndraus Bryant said of Pratt, who had a team-leading 13 tackles and a sack to go along with the decisive forced fumble and recovery.
“Any turnover is huge at any given moment,” Pratt added. “It was huge for us to stop them from putting points on the board.”
It became even bigger when the Eagles blocked an A.J. Cole punt and recovered it in the end zone to pull to within a single score with 3:33 still remaining. BC never got a chance to pull the game out, though, when after recovering the ensuing onside kick, the Wolfpack offense ran the clock out on four Gallaspy runs and a gutsy third-down completion from Finley to Stephen Louis.
“I thought the play call by (offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz) was clutch,” Doeren said. “It was a pressure call, and it allowed us to ice the game.
“To be 5-0 heading into a bye week is a great place to be right now, getting ready for a heck of a team down the road. But our players are excited and they deserve to be.”