Wolfpack mount second half comeback, lose Leary to injury

NC State rallied past Florida State to improve to 5-1

North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary (13) is assisted off the field by medical staff during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Florida State in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH— It looked like it was gearing up to be an embarrassing loss for 14th-ranked NC State at Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday night after a brutal first half saw them down by 14.

But the Wolfpack regrouped, battled through injuries and rallied to beat upset-minded Florida State 19-17. 

Despite losing starting quarterback Devin Leary late in the third quarter, the Wolfpack offense managed to put together three key scoring drives to take the lead while the defense shut out FSU in the second half, allowing just 93 yards of total offense and securing two critical interceptions.

“I’m super proud of our guys in their fight and resiliency,” said coach Dave Doeren. “I told them at halftime that we’re going to come back and win this game. All they had to do was believe and execute. Dominate the line of scrimmage and win the turnover margin and we’d win, and that’s what happened.”

The difference for NC State was the night-and-day performance of its defense between halves.

The first half saw the Pack struggle with the run game, which is usually its bread and butter, as FSU, and specifically quarterback Jordan Travis, gashed through it with ease.

The Seminoles’ rushing game through the first 30 minutes had 177 yards and a touchdown with the Wolfpack surrendering single runs of 26, 39 and 71 yards.

But the defense reset and came out strong to start the second half.

“We made adjustments based on what Florida State was doing,” Doeren said. “They really played in two formations offensively the whole first half. So we went in and discussed ways we could defend them better, and the guys did a nice job executing.” 

With a trio of three-and-outs and two interceptions in crucial moments — redshirt sophomore cornerback Shyheim Battle picking off Travis immediately after the Wolfpack took the lead and sophomore nickel Devan Boykin nabbing FSU’s final attempt for the end zone — the defense once again playing hero for NC State.

“Coming out of the timeout, we kind of knew they weren’t going to leave it up to the kicker,” Boykin said. “That they were going to try to take a shot into the end zone.”

When Travis attempted a fade for the go-ahead score, Boykin was ready.

“It had happened that they had scored earlier on that same route,“ Boykin said, “so I kind of knew that they were going to go back to it, and it just came down to me making a play on the ball.”

A week after failing to capitalize against Clemson, the Wolfpack came through in crucial moments on Saturday night.

“We had to make some plays,” Doeren said. “I talked about that last week. We didn’t make plays in key moments in the Clemson game and Clemson did. We made key plays tonight and that was the difference.”

The defense wasn’t the only one to make adjustments, though the offense’s change in game plan was due to the injury to Leary.

“The biggest hero in all the next-man-ups tonight was Jack [Chambers],” Doeren said of NC State’s backup quarterback, “what he did to move the chains for us and orchestrate three scoring drives.” 

The comeback was necessary due to an abysmal first half showing by NC State’s offense, with the only bright spot being junior running back Jordan Houston.

Leary was 5-of-14 passing for 75 yards — 34 of which were picked up by Houston on a wheel route — and an interception on a fourth-and-short attempt. NC State also went 0-6 on third downs through the first half.

But after halftime, the Wolfpack’s offense started to build a game. 

“More than anything, it was just looking them in the eye and saying, ‘This is a gut check. You’re going to be tested right now as competitors. This is your stadium. How do you want to look in it?’” Doeren said. “It was more about the attitude change and execution more than anything.”

Leary connected with graduate receiver Darryl Jones for a 10-yard touchdown to cap off an 84-yard drive early in the third, but the whole drive was predicated on the work of the running backs.

Both Houston and sophomore Demie Sumo-Karngbaye picked up the bulk of yards, 127 rushing yards between them for the game, including the Pack’s first few third down conversions.

But when Leary went down after absorbing a big hit and had to exit the game, it seemed like things were going to come screeching to a halt.

 The Wolfpack, however, were able to keep pounding away at the run game with Chambers, and redshirt sophomore running back Delbert Mimms even picking up critical yards on multiple drives to help set up kicker Christopher Dunn for successful field goals.

“It was just about making sure our guys had the best position,” Chambers said. “Putting our kicker out there and he did an amazing job sealing the game for us.”

Dunn hit all four of his field goal attempts over the course of the game, from 38, 40, 53 and 27, to tie his career high for field goals made in a game.

And once the Wolfpack were ahead, the defense shut the door.

“We just had to play fundamentally, gap-sound defense,” said junior linebacker Drake Thomas. “It wasn’t anything they were doing. We were doing it ourselves and we knew that. We talked about it at half, and we just had to do our job and focus on that and it paid off in the second half.”

Even though the Wolfpack won, there is still the question of Leary’s health, which could play a huge role in NC State’s ACC hopes if he were to miss significant time.

“X-rays were negative,” Doeren said. “They’ll MRI him tomorrow and we’ll be able to tell you more after that. But it’s positive that the X-rays were negative.”

Sumo-Karngbaye and redshirt junior receiver Devin Carter also left the game with injuries and did not return.

NC State will be at Syracuse against the undefeated Orange.