RALEIGH — Down by nine points with just over two minutes remaining Friday, NC State needed a miracle to avoid yet another soul-crushing loss to arch-rival North Carolina.
Divine intervention may not actually have played a part in the improbable comeback that saw the Wolfpack stun the Tar Heels 34-30 at Carter-Finley Stadium to keep its ACC Atlantic Division championship hopes alive.
But you’d have a hard time convincing Emeka Emezie, whose two late touchdown catches on passes from Devin Leary helped NC State pull off one of the most dramatic and meaningful victories in the long history of this series.
“I just (saw) in the crowd, somebody’s shirt said, ‘Don’t ever give up,’ like Jimmy V, and I started praying,” Emezie said, referring to the mantra first coined by legendary former Wolfpack basketball coach Jim Valvano during his gallant battle against cancer. “Then things went our way. It was crazy.”
Crazy doesn’t begin to describe a series of events that won’t likely make State fans forget whether T.A. McLendon got into the end zone, why then-coach Tom O’Brien would punt to Giovani Bernard with the game on the line, or any of the other heartbreaks they’ve experienced against the Tar Heels over the years, but will give them a happy memory to remember and talk about well into the future.
The two-score comeback came with a 64-yard strike from Leary to Emezie followed by a 24-yard completion just inside the far pylon 25 seconds later, sandwiched by an onside kick recovery by kicker Christopher Dunn.
But it began with a decision by UNC coach Mack Brown with 2:18 remaining. Instead of going for a first down that would effectively have ended the game on fourth-and-3 from the State 33, he sent kicker Grayson Atkins out to attempt a 50-yard field goal.
Atkins made the kick to extend the Tar Heels’ lead to 30-21. But it left the door open for what happened next.
“Grayson’s been an excellent kicker throughout the year and we were right in the middle of the field, so we felt good that going up by nine with two minutes left with them having one timeout left was the right thing to do,” Brown said afterward. “We had stopped them the second half. They had not had very much success.”
That changed after Jordan Houston put the Wolfpack (9-3, 6-2 ACC) in position by returning the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to near midfield. After Leary was sacked for the fifth time in the game, UNC’s secondary blew a coverage that left Emezie wide open down the far sideline.
He was so alone behind the secondary that Leary had a hard time believing what he saw.
“I was surprised,” he said. “I went through my progression and saw Emeka was wide open, gave him a shot and let him do the rest.”
But Leary, who completed 19 of 39 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns — giving him 35 for the year to break Philip Rivers’ single-season school record — and Emezie were just getting started.
First, though, they had to get the ball back.
It was an almost identical situation to the one State faced two weeks ago at Wake Forest. Although the Wolfpack came up with the ball that day, it was ruled that Ricky Person Jr. touched it before it went the required 10 yards, ending any chance for a win.
This time, Dunn waited just long enough before falling on the ball he had just kicked.
“We were due for a break there on an onside kick. (It was) well-executed,” State coach Dave Doeren said.
“It was crazy just to think we were in a very similar situation not too long ago and things didn’t really go our way,” Leary added. “As soon as we recovered the kick, I knew we were going to score. I knew we were going to get the ball in the end zone somehow, some way.”
And they did, getting a little help along the way in the form of an offside, a roughing the passer penalty and an interference call against the Tar Heels that put the Wolfpack in field goal range.
At that point, offensive coordinator Tim Beck suggested to Doeren that they run the ball to burn some of the remaining time. Although the Wolfpack had some success on the ground, with Zonovan Knight rushing for 69 yards and Person gaining 63 while both averaging better than 5.7 yards per carry, the head coach quickly nixed the idea.
“I said, ‘No, Devin’s hot, let’s go score,’” Doeren said. “I didn’t want to put it on the kicker and risk whatever could happen there. We were going to be aggressive. The way Devin plays in clutch situations, we knew something good was going to happen.”
More times than not, those winning plays have involved Emezie.
The senior receiver, who returned for the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players because of COVID-19, added to his legacy by outreaching UNC safety Cam’Ron Kelly and coming down with his foot in bounds for the winning touchdown with 1:09 remaining.
“Honestly, it doesn’t feel real,” said Emezie, the Wolfpack’s all-time leader in receptions. “You can’t script that up. You can’t envision that. Man, that’s a blessing right there.”
While Emezie’s second touchdown gave State its first lead since early in the third quarter, there was still work left to be done before the Wolfpack’s second field-storming celebration of the season could begin.
And UNC nearly spoiled the party.
Led by quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels (6-6, 3-5) made it to the State 31 before Derrek Pitts finally settled the issue with an interception in the end zone as time expired.
Howell threw for 147 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 98 yards and two more scores to highlight an offense that reeled off 297 yards on the ground and 24 unanswered points to take control after State staked itself to a quick 14-0 lead on a blocked punt for a touchdown and a pass from Leary to Trent Pennix.
Former walk-on running back British Brooks was an unexpected star by running for a career-high 124 yards on 15 carries. But when the Tar Heels had chances to put the Wolfpack away, they instead settled for a pair of fourth quarter field goals.
“Only giving away three points is almost a win for the defense,” linebacker Vi Jones said. “That’s just kind of the mentality we have.”
The win keeps State in a position to win its first ACC Atlantic title, but it will take a Wake Forest loss at Boston College on Saturday to do it.
For the Tar Heels, the loss was just another in a series of late meltdowns that have turned what started as a promising season into a disappointing exercise in what might have been.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve got to do a better job,” Brown said. “I’m really disappointed in me that our team doesn’t win that game. We had an opportunity to beat a really good team at Pittsburgh, one of the best in our league, and we didn’t finish it. We had a better opportunity tonight and we still didn’t finish it.