RALEIGH — Thayer Thomas and NC State’s special teams came up with big enough plays to offset the Wolfpack’s sputtering second-half offense Saturday night.
Thomas had a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter while Max Fisher blocked a fourth-quarter punt to set up another score, helping the Wolfpack beat Ball State 34-23.
Malik Dunlap recovered Fisher’s block, putting the Wolfpack at the Cardinals’ 7-yard line. Matthew McKay scored on a keeper three plays later at the 8:41 mark to help the Wolfpack stay in control.
“I feel like the special teams the second half really won us the game,” Thomas said.
He wouldn’t find much argument from coach Dave Doeren or his teammates, either. Not with how little NC State’s offense managed in the final 30 minutes.
NC State completed only two passes and had 104 total yards after halftime. The good news, at least, was the Wolfpack (3-1) had pushed ahead for good in the second quarter to lead 20-7 at the break, then got Thomas’ run to the end zone to go up 20.
There wasn’t a lot to highlight beyond that, other than Fisher’s block.
“They definitely changed the momentum of the game,” McKay said of the special teams. “We just had to capitalize and go score” after the blocked punt.
McKay also ran for a second-quarter TD for NC State (3-1), which turned away the Cardinals’ last best push on Chris Ingram’s end-zone interception with 3:43 left.
Justin Hall and Caleb Huntley ran for scores for Ball State (1-3), which entered with one of the nation’s top passing attacks behind Drew Plitt. Plitt threw for 333 yards but failed to connect for a score for the first time this year.
“We had a couple of opportunities there that we needed to finish the deal, and we didn’t get that done,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said, “The effort is fantastic by our guys, the heart — all that stuff is good. Each guy knows that we just have a few plays that obviously we need to make in order to have a chance to change that outcome.”
Ball State: Plitt came into this game ranked fifth in the Bowl Subdivision ranks in passing yards per game (346.7) while ranking tied for third with 11 passing touchdowns. He had some good moments in this one yet couldn’t come up with some needed throws as Ball State settled for multiple field goals, while his late interception came after the Cardinals had recovered an onside kick with a chance to inch even closer late.
NC State: It was a big improvement for the special teams, which surrendered a blocked punt that set up a touchdown in last week’s loss at West Virginia. Thomas had the biggest play when he took a punt, weaved through midfield and broke into the open for the TD return — the Wolfpack’s first since Nyheim Hines did it at Pittsburgh in 2017, a span of 22 games. Then there was Fisher’s block to give the Pack a short field. NC State needed all of it, too, considering the offense managed just five first downs after halftime.
“They obviously let us down big time on that last week,” Doeren said, “and sparked us this time.”
NC State played the second half without leading rusher Zonovan “Bam” Knight. Doeren said the freshman who came in with 233 yards (77.7 per game) had a hamstring issue.
NC State gave a first half series to No. 2 quarterback Bailey Hockman, ending when his pass for Tabari Hines was bobbled and then intercepted. McKay returned and led a pair of touchdown drives, completing 7 of 8 passes for 88 yards on those drives.
Doeren said the Wolfpack had planned to do it all week to get Hockman something more than mop-up duty at the end of a game.
“Regardless of what happened on his drive, Matt was going to go back in,” Doeren said, adding: “I think it sparked Matt a little bit.”
Ball State: The Cardinals have an open date next week and return to action at Northern Illinois on Oct. 5.
NC State: Florida State hosts the Wolfpack in NC State’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener next Saturday.