Another Comeback in the Carter: Morris leads Wolfpack to victory

NC State’s true freshman quarterback led a come-from-behind win

North Carolina State quarterback MJ Morris (16) throws the ball to Thayer Thomas (5) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Someway, somehow, 24th-ranked NC State (6-2, 2-2 ACC) did it again, pulling off an improbable fourth-quarter comeback win to beat Virginia Tech (2-6, 1-4 ACC) 22-21 on Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.

After posting a 14-point comeback in their last home game against Florida State, the Wolfpack one-upped themselves with an 18-point rally to overcome the Hokies. 

“It says a lot about the heart of this team,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren, “the chemistry of this team, the love of this team. Against Florida State, it was Jack [Chambers] that brought us back, and in this one it was M.J. [Morris]. The kids just don’t quit here. We’ve built up a culture of persistence, perseverance and love, and it shows.”

It didn’t come easy for the Wolfpack, whose offense was anemic through nearly three full quarters as the Hokies built a lead. 

But late in the third quarter, with Morris taking over at quarterback, NC Stats was a totally different team

The true freshman, who replaced graduate transfer Chambers, threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing, with 213 of those yards and all three scores coming in the second half.

“There were a lot of things going on in my head, but the one thing I tried to focus on was just doing my job for the team,” Morris said. “Just encouraging everybody to do what they gotta do because if we just do our jobs, everyone is going to take care of each other.”

Helping the freshman quarterback was graduate receiver Thayer Thomas, who had 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score.

Tight end Trent Pennix played for the first time since Week 1, catching a touchdown pass, and freshman receiver Terrell Timmons’ 43-yard reception helped spark the stagnant offense. 

“[Timmons] is a very gifted ball catcher,” Doeren said. “He can go up and track the football and elevate. He’s got really, really good speed and he’s just been coming on. Felt like we needed another playmaker on offense, a guy that could stretch the field. Just looking for another way to get a vertical threat in the passing game and you saw a glimpse of it tonight. Once he learns the offense, he’s got a huge, huge upside.”

The first half offered little to those who enjoy offense.

The teams combined for just 176 yards of total offense, 60 yards of penalties, nine false starts and a single field goal, which didn’t come until the closing seconds of the second quarter.

The Wolfpack limited the Hokies to just 46 total yards of offense and two first downs in the first 30 minutes, but it was more Virginia Tech sabotaging itself — the visiting team had seven false starts in that half alone — than anything else.

The script flipped in third quarter.

The Hokies exploded for three touchdowns in their first four drives of the quarter to take a 21-3 lead.

NC State finally responded late in that third quarter and took it to the Hokies from there.

“Grant Gibson usually doesn’t cuss or scream at us,” said Thomas when asked what might have sparked the offense, mentioning the Wolfpack center. “He’s very quiet, but when he says something people listen. But he started cussing us out on the sideline, and when he did that, I sort of knew we needed to pick it up. That’s sort of what I felt like sparked us in the second half. That he came over and called the offensive up and got on us pretty well. That really helped us turn it on.”

While the offensive resurgence claimed the glory, the Wolfpack defense pitched a shutout in three of the four quarters and came away with a few crucial sacks and three-and-outs to set up the victory.

“We just kept playing,” Doeren said. “That’s one thing about NC State, going back to Jimmy V. — never quit. I think that’s something that our team has embraced.”

While the defense stumbled in the third quarter, it quickly regrouped to allow just one more first down.

“As a defense, we knew we gave up those plays,” said graduate safety Cyrus Fagan. “We beat ourselves on those plays. So we just went back to doing our job and doing it physically and fast.

”When our backs are against the wall, we just lock arms. All week we were preaching, ‘When stuff goes wrong, wrap your arm around your brother and hold him tighter.’ I felt like that came to light because we were down bad and we had to hold each other accountable and push the offense. We just had each other’s backs.”

The Wolfpack next host No. 10 Wake Forest in prime time Nov. 5 at Carter-Finley Stadium.