RALEIGH — It didn’t take long for there to be an indication that Thursday was going to be a good night for the NC State football team.
It happened on the first possession of the Wolfpack’s season-opening game against South Florida when Devin Leary’s third down pass was deflected into the air by a Bulls defender.
Instead of falling to the ground for a drive-ending incompletion — or worse, being intercepted — the ball landed softly into the hands of tight end Christopher Toudle for a first down. Four plays later, State scored the first of its six touchdowns on the way to a 45-0 rout at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Coach Dave Doeren couldn’t have asked for a better debut performance from his veteran team.
Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan Knight both rushed for more than 100 yards, with Person scoring three times. Leary threw for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while a defense bolstered by the addition of two key transfers collected three takeaways and seven tackles for losses in an impressive warmup for next week’s more challenging trip to Mississippi State.
“Being able to get up on a team and stay up on them, keeping them in the corner and not letting them out … I just love the maturity of them,” Doeren said of the Wolfpack. “They really took things to heart that we pointed out in the offseason that we needed to improve on.”
The biggest area of improvement was clearly on defense, especially in a secondary that was the team’s weak link a year ago.
Florida State transfer Cyrus Fagan was a difference-maker at safety with seven tackles and an interception. Fellow newcomer Derrek Pitts, a cornerback from Marshall, also played well in coverage while making three stops — including one for a loss.
Combining with holdovers Tanner Ingle, who also picked off a pass, Tyler Baker-Williams and several others, the Wolfpack limited USF quarterbacks Cade Fortin and Timmy McClain to just 167 yards on 14-of-33 passing.
“The thing I really liked was the way we played the football in the air,” Doeren said. “Defensively, this was the first time in a while that our DBs broke on balls, snatched them out of the air and made some confident catches. That’s what you need to be able to do when you’re playing in this kind of defense.”
Linebacker Drake Thomas had the Wolfpack’s other interception, one of two that halted a Bulls red zone possessions.
USF’s deepest penetration came late in the game after Doeren began to substitute liberally. But even then, the Wolfpack were able to keep the Bulls out of the end zone.
Second-year freshman Ayden White preserved State’s first opening game shutout win since a 42-0 whitewash against Richmond in 2004 by breaking up a fourth down pass in the end zone with under a minute remaining.
“We’ve talked a lot of talk and we’ve gotten a lot of credit on social media, but when it comes down to it and the lights are on, it’s just a matter if you’re going to perform,” said Thomas, who led the team with eight tackles. “We had a good start tonight in proving who we are.”
The offense also made an impressive first impression. Even though its opening touchdown was set up by a fortunate bounce, Leary and Co. didn’t need much luck to get the best of a USF team that went 1-8 a year ago.
The Wolfpack dominated all phases of the game, churning out 525 yards and 27 first downs, evenly distributed between the ground and air.
It was an especially big night for the running backs, each of whom carried the ball 16 times while becoming the first two backs to rush for 100-plus yards in the game since Matt Dayes and Shadrach Thornton did it against South Alabama in 2015.
Person got things started by catching a 33-yard pass from Leary on a perfectly executed wheel route. He then rushed for two more scores, the second on a direct snap sandwiched around a Christopher Dunn field goal, to stake State to a 24-0 halftime advantage.
This marks the second straight year Person has accounted for three touchdowns in an opening game. He ran for two and threw for another last year against Wake Forest. He finished with 105 yards while Knight accounted for 163 yards and one touchdown.
“The rotation we have is great,” Person said. “We dig on each other. When he’s out there and he gets those explosive runs, he’ll come to the sideline and tell me what he sees. That’s something we tell each other — what we see and how we can make our runs more explosive than they are. We pick up little things throughout the game to help each other.”
The strong running game, which also produced a touchdown from Jordan Houston, helped make things easy for Leary. Playing for the first time since breaking his leg against Duke last October, the redshirt sophomore completed 17 of 26 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns and an interception — the second of which was a seven-yard strike to Toudle.
“In the first half there were some missed opportunities that I wish I could get back,” Leary said. “But something that we always preach here on each series is that we just have to go 1-0. No matter what happens during a play, we’ve always got a next play to bounce back, and that was kind of my approach this whole game.”