Fast start propels Wolfpack to another road win

NC State rode an opportunistic defense and a balanced offense to a big early lead on the way to its second straight road win, 38-21 win at Virginia

NC State nose tackle Alim McNeill rumbles into the end zone for a touchdown after intercepting a Virginia pass on Saturday. (Erin Edgerton / The Daily Progress via AP)

The NC State football team waited until the final minute before putting Pittsburgh away last week. Saturday, it took care of business early to come away with its second straight road win.

Taking advantage of two early interceptions and the passing of quarterback Devin Leary, the Wolfpack scored the game’s first 24 points and cruised to a 38-21 victory over Virginia at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.

State forced four turnovers in all, including a second half interception for a touchdown by nose tackle Alim McNeil, blocked a punt and got a 101-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort from Zonovan Knight on the way to a victory that improved its record to 3-1 (3-1 ACC).

The victory closes out the Wolfpack’s first three-game road trip since 1986 and moves coach Dave Doeren’s team to within one victory of its total for the entire 2019 season.

Three thoughts

1. UVa came into the game having had trouble with slow starts and turnovers, and the Wolfpack took advantage of both. Even after having an early touchdown catch by Porter Rooks overturned upon review, State still manged to jump on the Cavaliers early thanks to interceptions by freshman defensive backs Shyheim Battle and Joshua Pierre-Louis. Leary converted both of the takeaways by throwing touchdown passes to running back Trent Pennix and tight end Cary Angeline — the latter of which came on a flea flicker. Knight also scored on a 35-yard run to stake the Wolfpack to a 24-o headstart before UVa finally got on the board.

2. State forced only eight turnovers all last season and had only one through the first three games this year. But Saturday, the Wolfpack took the ball away four times, including a fourth quarter interception by the 320-pound McNeill that halted a potential Cavaliers rally before it could get off the ground. Isaiah Moore got the other one by recovering a fumble forced by teammate Terrell Dawkins. So what was the difference? UVa had something to do with it, but you could say that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson also threw his unit a bone in an effort to encourage more turnovers. Saturday’s game was the first time the Wolfpack used an oversized bone — the kind made for dogs to chew on — as a trophy to be signed by players who earn a takeaway.

3. Although Leary wasn’t as sharp as he was against Pitt last week, he was still effective enough to keep the UVa defense honest and give the Wolfpack’s strong running attack a chance to succeed. The redshirt sophomore completed 11 of 25 passes for 184 yards, most of it coming in the first half, with two touchdowns and an interception. He was complemented by a ground game that accounted for 179 yards to give State the kind of balance that has been the goal of first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

Number to Know

50 — Saturday’s win was the 50th of Doeren’s career with the Wolfpack. That moves him past Chuck Amato into third place on the school’s all-time list for coaching victories. Doeren is now only two wins behind Hall of Famer Dick Sheridan for second place. Earle Edwards has the most wins as a Wolfpack coach with 77.

Player of the Game

Shyheim Battle, NC State cornerback — The redshirt freshman led a secondary depleted by injuries, contact tracing and the second quarter ejection of co-captain Tanner Ingle while ranking second on the team with seven tackles. He also got his first career interception to set up a touchdown and recorded a sack on UVa quarterback Brennan Armstrong for a 10-yard loss.

They Said It

“I had told Coach Gibson right before halftime that when we come back, I’m going to catch a pick-six. I was just talking crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.  I was celebrating in the end zone like ‘this did not just happen.’ But it was fun. I was glad I was able to tip the ball and add some points to the scoreboard.”

— State nose tackle Alim McNeill on his fourth quarter touchdown

Critical thinking

Any similarities between the State team that went 4-8 with six straight losses to end last season and this year’s squad are completely coincidental. A big reason for the transformation has been the arrival of new offensive coordinator Beck, who has brought greater balance and creativity to the Wolfpack’s attack by designing a system built to take advantage of a talented stable of running backs and Leary’s strong arm.

Defensively the Wolfpack continues to give up yardage, especially through the air — UVa ended up with 323 passing yards despite playing with a backup quarterback for the entire second half and 405 overall. But it continues to make plays when its team needs then the most. For the second straight week, State executed a goal-line stand that kept the opposition out of the end zone for multiple plays inside the 1-yard line. It also scored a touchdown and maintained a multiple-score lead during during the offense’s third quarter lull.

With two wins on a difficult early-season three-game road trip, the Wolfpack has become one of the early surprises of the ACC and put itself into position for a solid bounce-back season