After a stunning road win over then-No. 24 Pittsburgh last week, the question leading up to this week’s game for the NC State football team was whether or not that performance could be replicated. The Pack answered with a resounding yes, taking down the defending ACC Coastal Champion Virginia 38-21 for a second straight upset victory on the road.
Coming into the game as a seven-point underdog, NC State (3-1) jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first half, and after allowing Virginia (1-2) to creep back into the game in the third quarter, the Pack made the plays it needed to make to win the game in the fourth.
“Very proud of our guys and our staff to come play on the road again for the third straight week and play the ACC Coastal defending champs the way we did,” said head coach Dave Doeren.
The Wolfpack had a balanced offensive attack with 184 passing yards and 179 yards on the ground, and despite getting outgained in total yards and having less first downs than Virginia, the Pack was able to force four Virginia turnovers while only giving up the ball once itself, which proved to be a deciding factor.
“I thought the defense was really stellar today — four takeaways, defensive touchdown, blocked a punt,” Doeren said. “Really proud of their effort.”
After the Pack’s first two drives ended without a score, redshirt freshman corner Shyheim Battle intercepted Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong for the game’s first takeaway, earning the “Dog Bone,” a large red dog bone given to players that get takeaways, similar to Miami’s famed turnover chain.
The offense would cash in six plays later when redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary found redshirt sophomore running back Trent Pennix for a 5-yard touchdown. The score was the third touchdown of his career for Pennix, a Raleigh native and graduate of Sanderson High School.
The NC State defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Virginia drive, then the offense followed that up with another touchdown drive. The score was on a double-reverse trick play that involved junior running back Ricky Person Jr. pitching it to freshman wide receiver Porter Rooks, who pitched it back to Leary on a flea-flicker that went 32-yards to redshirt senior tight end Cary Angeline for a touchdown, extending the lead to 14-0.
One of the biggest sequences of the game came on the next drive, when Virginia drove the ball all the way down the field to the 1-yard line, but the NC State defense made a goal-line stop following four Virginia runs, a similar sequence to the one that occurred last week against Pitt. That stand prevented the Cavaliers from getting on the board and giving their offense some momentum.
The NC State defensive came up with another interception on the next Virginia drive, this time by freshman defensive back Joshua Pierre-Louis, who earned the Dog Bone. The offense turned that takeaway into a 36-yard field goal by junior kicker Chris Dunn, to make the score 17-0. The offense carried this momentum when it scored on its next drive, which culminated in a 35-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Zonovan Knight to make the score 24-0. Virginia scored a touchdown just before halftime to cut the lead to 24-7.
Like the game in Pittsburgh and other games from previous years, the NC State offense was stagnant in the third quarter, not mustering a single point, while Virginia scored a touchdown to make it a 10-point game.
After five straight empty-handed drives from the NC State offense in the second half, including an interception by Leary on the first drive of the half and the second missed field goal of the game for Dunn, junior defensive end Alim McNeill came up with the biggest defensive play of the game. He broke up a pass by Virginia backup quarterback Lindell Stone, intercepting the ball in midair and taking it to the house for a pick six and the first touchdown of McNeill’s college career. The play resembled Germaine Pratt’s pick six against Louisville in 2017, although McNeill’s score didn’t result in Lamar Jackson getting body-slammed.
“It was crazy,” McNeill said. “I had told [defensive coordinator Tony Gibson] right before halftime, ‘When we come back, I’mma catch a pick six.’ I was just talking crazy, and that’s exactly what happened, and I was like ‘Did this really just happen? I’m celebrating in the end zone. This did not just happen.’ It was fun.”
At Sanderson High School in Raleigh, McNeill was often put in at the goal line on offense to punch the ball in the end zone, just like William “The Refrigerator” Perry with the Chicago Bears in the NFL. He was due for a touchdown at NC State, and today he cashed in. McNeill and Pennix, who scored the first touchdown, were teammates at Sanderson.
Virginia was not ready to go away, however, mustering a touchdown drive on the very next possession to cut the lead back to 10, and after the NC State offense went three-and-out on the next possession, the Cavaliers had a chance to make it a one-score game. But the NC State defense came up clutch again, stopping Virginia on downs, and the offense cashed in four plays later with a 2-yard touchdown run by Knight, thus sealing the game.
Prior to the season, not many people would have thought that NC State would be 3-1 after this early-season three-game road trip, but the Pack has proved the doubters wrong. Next week, NC State returns home to face Duke before what is setting up to be a highly anticipated matchup at rival North Carolina the week after.