Wolfpack beats Georgia Tech to complete 8-win regular season

The Wolfpack earned the most ACC wins in program history

NC State's Alim McNeill prepars to put a hit on Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims during the first half of the Wolfpack's 23-10 win on Saturday (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

RALEIGH — Georgia Tech dared NC State quarterback Bailey Hockman to beat it by loading up the box to stop the run.

And that’s what he did.

The redshirt junior threw for 309 yards and played error-free football to lead the Wolfpack to a 23-13 victory against Georgia Tech in NC State’s regular season finale at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Ricky Person and Zonovan Knight both scored rushing touchdowns despite the Yellow Jackets’ strategy and kicker Christopher Dunn kicked three field goals to help State (8-3, 7-3 ACC) hold on for its fourth straight win and eighth of the year — doubling its victory total from a disappointing 2019.

Hockman, who took over the starting job after Devin Leary suffered a season-ending injury in October, posted his second straight 300-plus yard passing performance, distributing the ball to nine different receivers for his 23 completions.

Although the Wolfpack were outgained 412-397 by a Georgia Tech team that rushed for 261 yards, its defense came up big when it had to by limiting the Yellow Jackets (3-5, 3-4) to just a single touchdown. And while Tech was 10 of 19 on third down in the game, State stopped it on all three of its fourth down tries to hold onto the lead despite scoring only three points in the second half.

“I’m just proud to be part of this football team,” said Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, whose team will now wait to find out its bowl destination. “These young men and this coaching staff, looking at where we came from with one ACC win and now we have seven … that’s quite a year when you talk about improvement.”

Three thoughts

1. Georgia Tech came into the game ranked 11th in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 185.9 yards per game, but as previously noted, the Yellow Jackets did everything it could to prevent the Wolfpack from running the ball. And to some extent, it worked. The Wolfpack gained just 88 yards on the ground while Hockman threw the ball a season-high 36 passes — including six on the fourth quarter drive that led to State’s clinching field goal.

But even with a defense geared up to stop the run, the Wolfpack’s leading rusher, Knight, was strangely missing in action for long stretches in the game. The sophomore, who came into the game with 698 rushing yards, carried the ball only seven times for 38 yards and an average of 5.4 yards per carry. He did however, run for a touchdown in the second quarter, his second of the season.

Ricky Person got 59 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown of his own. Twenty of those yards came on a third down play on the game’s final possession that finally put the game away.

2. Safety Tanner Ingle was called for targeting and ejected after he hit Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims high as he was sliding down at the end of a 10-yard scramble on the opening possession of the second half. It marked the third time this season and the second time in the past three games that the junior co-captain has been flagged for targeting. Three ejections in a season carries an automatic one-game suspension, so Ingle — who had six tackles and a tackle for loss before leaving the game — won’t be eligible to play in State’s upcoming bowl game.

3. State honored 15 players on Senior Day prior to what for some was their final game at Carter-Finley Stadium. Because the NCAA has granted all players an extra year of eligibility in response to the disjointed nature of this season, all of them will have the option to return in 2021. At least one, however, has said he will not be back — and he’s not even a senior.

Junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill announced before the game that he will pass up the remainder of his college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. The other players that were honored Saturday were: linebacker Louis Acceus; tight ends Cary Angeline, Dylan Autenreith and Thomas Ruocchio; wide receiver Emeka Emezie; offensive linemen Charles Fletcher, Tyrone Riley, Lian Ryan, Joe Sculthorpe and Justin Witt; cornerback Chris Ingram; defensive ends Daniel Joseph and Val Martin; and defensive back Matthew Wagner.

Number to Know

7 — The number of ACC wins earned by the Wolfpack this season, the most in school history. The record carries an asterisk, since the 10 conference games this season are two more than usual because of the coronavirus-amended schedule. Still, it’s an accomplishment worth noting considering the Wolfpack won only one ACC game a year ago. The previous school record for ACC wins in a season was six, set in 1963 and matched in 1968, ’73, ’92, ’94 and 2017.

Player of the Game

Christopher Dunn, NC State kicker — Dunn went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, connecting from 41 and 20 yards in the first half to stake the Wolfpack to a 20-10 lead, then hit a 39-yarder with 3:31 remaining to seal the victory. The final field goal was significant beyond the scoreboard. It was the 56th three-pointer of Dunn’s Wolfpack career, breaking the school record of 55 held by Nicklas Sade from 2011-14.

They said it

“There’s been so many ups and downs individually, as a team and just as a program in general, and we’ve learned to stay extremely consistent through all of that. If we can just keep our heads on straight and keep playing our game, good things are going to happen. That’s the story of this year.”

— NC State quarterback Bailey Hockman

Critical Thinking

The Wolfpack didn’t make it easy on itself against a young opponent playing out the string of a losing season without its leading rusher and second-leading receiver. But that’s been the trademark of this team for most of the season. And unlike previous seasons, this State team has found ways to win games that it might otherwise have let slip away.

Saturday’s victory was no different. Despite opening up a comfortable halftime lead, the Wolfpack couldn’t put the Yellow Jackets away. But just when it looked as though the win might be slipping from its grasp after a Tech field goal narrowed the lead to 20-13 with 11:32 remaining, the Wolfpack made plays on both sides of the ball to hold on and finish the regular season in style.

While some of State’s success this season can be attributed to a favorable schedule that allowed it to avoid the ACC’s top two teams — Notre Dame and Clemson — it shouldn’t diminish the Wolfpack’s accomplishment considering the low point from which it started, the loss of its starting quarterback to injury and all the challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic.