Wolfpack's come-back effort comes up short in 25-23 loss
Sept. 2, 2007
RALEIGH, N.C. - Tom O'Brien's halftime speech did not include any ranting or raving. He didn't throw anything, except a challenge at the feet of his players.
"Coach came in a halftime and asked us what type of team are we," said junior tailback Andre Brown. "Everybody was like, `We are a better team than what we showed in the first half.' It was just a matter of us coming together as a team."
And that's how the Wolfpack managed to turn Saturday's season-opener against Central Florida in front of 57,283 at Carter-Finley Stadium from a blow-out to a nail-biter. Trailing 25-3 at the half, the Wolfpack came within a two-point conversion midway through the fourth of completing a comeback, thanks in part to improved play by the defense and a quarterback switch just before halftime.
Still, the Golden Knights held on for a 25-23 victory, spoiling new head coach Tom O'Brien's NC State debut.
The Wolfpack, down quickly after junior tailback Kevin Smith rambled 80 yards on Central Florida's first play of the game, had a chance to go for a game-winning score on late in the contest, but the offense stalled in its own territory. O'Brien opted to go for it on fourth-and-six with 3:30 remaining, but sophomore Harrison Beck's pass to John Dunlap wasn't long enough to get the first down. The Golden Knights took over on the Wolfpack 41-yard line.
Central Florida ran nearly three minutes off the clock, but could not move the ball and gave the ball back to NC State with 52.5 seconds remaining on the clock. Beck got the team to midfield with a 32-yard pass to John Dunlap, but the Wolfpack couldn't advance any further. Beck's last-second pass on the game's last play was intercepted in the Central Florida secondary.
"Obviously, it was a tough start to a season," said O'Brien after the game. "We have nobody to blame but ourselves. We lost as a football team, we lost as coaches, we lost as players. We didn't do what we had to do to win the football game. We gave them all kinds of opportunities."
The Wolfpack was hurt by mistakes, committing seven penalties, including two costly substitution penalties late in the game. The Wolfpack turned the ball over twice, with one interception each by starting quarterback Daniel Evans and Beck. But the defense, after allowing 261 yards in the first half, gave up just 38 yards in the second half. The defense also held Central Florida to just 2-for-16 on third-down conversions.
"Are we disappointed in the way we played?" O'Brien said. "Yes, we certainly are. But we certainly are discouraged."
Indeed, little went right for the Wolfpack before the third quarter. Smith, who had a career-high 217 rushing yards, set the tone on the Knights' first play of the game, breaking through the line of scrimmage and rambling down the east sideline for the longest touchdown of his career.
Evans' second pass of the season was tipped high into the air and intercepted by Golden Knights' freshman linebacker Lawrence Young. Two possessions later, Evans was tackled in the end zone for a safety. By the time halftime rolled around, the Wolfpack trailed 25-3 and Smith had amassed 177 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack offense, thanks to three sacks of Evans, had negative-14 yards on the ground.
Even after O'Brien turned the offensive over to Beck late in the second quarter, the outlook wasn't much better. On a fourth-down play, Beck lost the snap from center, turning the ball over to Central Florida to set up the Knights' final score of the first half, a 19-yard field goal by Michael Torres as time expired.
Something similar happened on the Wolfpack's first possession of the second half, as junior tailback Toney Baker was hit in the backfield on fourth down at midfield, turning the ball over to the Golden Knights on downs.
It wasn't until Darrell Blackman picked up a low, line-drive punt on the sidelines and broke free for a 57-yard return to the UCF 33-yard line that NC State's fortunes turned around. On the next play, Brown raced 33 yards for the Wolfpack's first touchdown of the season, closing the gap to 25-10.
"I felt as though I needed to make a big play at that point," Blackman said of his punt return. "I saw that Jimmie Sutton had made a good block over on the left side. They tried to pooch the ball. I saw that the punt team was running down a little slow, like they thought I wouldn't pick it up. So I just picked it up and started running."
On the Golden Knights' next play from scrimmage, defensive end Littleton Wright slammed Khymest Williams 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage on an end around, and the Wolfpack seemed to have gained a little momentum. They managed two score twice more, first on a six-yard pass from Beck to fullback Pat Bedics and then on a 14-yard pass from Beck to sophomore wide receiver Donald Bowens.
The latter came with 4:20 remaining in the contest, and O'Brien opted to go for the two-point conversion to tie the game. Beck, who completed 17 of 26 passes in his collegiate debut, scrambled around looking for a receiver on the play and found tight end Marcus Stone in the back of the end zone. But his pass was just out of Stone's reach.
"Marcus is a tall guy [6-foot-3]," Beck said. "I just tried to put it up there where he could reach it."
O'Brien was disappointed in the way his team started the game, but still had reason to be optimistic as his team prepares for next weekend's game at Boston College.
"You are never as good as you think you are when you win and you are never as bad as you think you are when you lose," O'Brien said. "When you look at the second half, there were a lot more positives than there were negatives. We scored three touchdowns in the second half and they didn't score any.
"We still have plenty to work on."