RALEIGH — Four games and four wins into the 2018 season and the NC State football team is still finding new weapons to add to an already potent offense.
True freshman running back Ricky Person Jr. returned from an injury to add life to a stagnant ground attack by rushing for 108 yards on 14 carries while wide receiver Emeka Emezie caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown to lead the Wolfpack to a 35-21 victory against Virginia in its conference opener Saturday.
Their contributions, along with another big day by quarterback Ryan Finley and four sacks by a rebuilt defensive line, helped State continue its upward trend as it looks to establish itself as a legitimate contender in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
“Your goal each week is to be better than you were the week before,” graduate center Garrett Bradbury said. “I think we’re fixing some things that we’ve put on film the previous weeks, especially in the run game and cleaning some things up. People are getting more comfortable. Definitely that’s a pretty good sign.”
Emezie was already having a productive season before Saturday, with 15 catches for 154 yards and a score. But he hasn’t gotten much attention in a receiving corps loaded with stars such as Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis.
Against the Cavaliers, though, it was finally his time to shine.
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound sophomore got the Wolfpack started on the game’s opening possession by outjumping a Virginia defender for a 39-yard gain to set up a short Christopher Dunn field goal.
Then after UVa answered back with a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead, Emezie made an even more difficult catch at the goal line on a perfectly placed 16-yard throw by Finley early in the second quarter.
The touchdown was the first of three scores that allowed State (4-0, 1-0 ACC) to gain some separation on the Cavaliers with a 20-7 advantage before halftime. Emezie would later catch a two-point conversion pass that helped put UVA away.
“I feel real confident that when the ball’s in the air, he’s going to come down with it,” Finley said of Emezie.
“I’m pretty blessed to throw the ball to those guys. There’s not a doubt in my mind that when the ball’s in the air, all those guys are going to come down with it. I put a couple of balls in jeopardy today and they saved me.”
Harmon also had a big game with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Meyers had four catches for 30 yards while 6-foot-7 transfer tight end Cary Angeline caught a 14-yard lob for his first career catch and touchdown as a member of the Wolfpack.
It wasn’t a surprise State was able to throw the ball effectively against one of the ACC’s top secondaries, with Finley going 22 of 32 for 257 yards and three scores. It leads the conference in passing offense.
The addition of a running attack figures to make the Wolfpack all the more dangerous moving forward.
State averaged just 107.7 yards pre game through its first three wins, but Person matched that all by himself Saturday. On one three-play sequence late in the second quarter, the four-star recruit out of Raleigh’s Heritage High School, reeled off consecutive runs of 12, 16 and 27 yards to set up the touchdown pass to Angeline.
Person hadn’t played since the opening week of the season because of a strained right hamstring. He only returned to practice on Tuesday. Although he was officially listed as questionable, there was never any question in his mind that he would not only play, but make a significant contribution.
Unlike power back Reggie Gallaspy, who scored on a 2-yard run early in the third quarter to expand the lead to 27-7, Person gives State with a speed back it lost when Nyheim Hines decided to enter the NFL after last season.
“He’s still not a 100 percent, but that’s as good as he’s felt and he really wanted to be on the field today,” Doeren said of Person. “That kid is a warrior, I gave him the game ball. I thought he battled. He’s a change of pace back and makes people miss and we’ve been missing that.”
One thing the Wolfpack haven’t missed, at least to this point, are all the playmakers it lost off its defense a year ago.
Its rebuilt unit continued its strong play by sacking UVa’s elusive quarterback Bryce Perkins four times and limiting him to 24 rushing yards, about 50 yards fewer than his season average. JUCO transfer Larrell Murchison had three of the sacks. Running back Jordan Ellis, the ACC’s second leading rusher, also had a tough time while managing only 39 yards on 13 tries.
Although the emphasis on stopping the run helped opened things up for Perkins to throw for 258 and two touchdowns, State made enough plays when it needed them to keep the Cavaliers from seriously threatening them.
The biggest of those plays came with 12 minutes remaining when it prevented UVa from getting within a single score with a fourth down from from the Wolfpack 21. Finley methodically drove his team down the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion that all but put the game away.
“I thought our guys really played hard and physical football against a very good football team,” Doeren said. “Their quarterback is a tough guy to tackle. Defensively we had an excellent game plan, especially in the first half. They changed some things up at halftime and we had to adjust as we went.
“Offensively, to be able to run the football effectively against a very good defense was great. That was a fun win against a great team and we’re excited to be where we are right now.”