The NC State football team has now done something that no other team in college football has done this season: beat Liberty. It wasn’t pretty, but the Wolfpack somehow found a way to hand the No. 21 Liberty Flames their first loss of the season with a 15-14 win on Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Flames Extinguished!!! pic.twitter.com/qTSAmOhqAi— NC State Football (@PackFootball) November 22, 2020
“Heck of a football game,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “Really proud of our guys, just finding another way to win… Tonight, it’s about celebrating the win and knocking off a top-25 team.”
NC State (6-3, 5-3 ACC) committed 14 penalties for a whopping 123 yards, and the offense struggled for most of the night, but it was the defense that was able to hold Liberty’s (8-1) usually prolific offense in check. It was both the defense and special teams that were able to make key plays down the stretch to help the Pack get the win.
The Flames scored 38 points or more in each of their previous five games, and the Pack had scored 30 or more points in all but two this season, but the first quarter ended in a scoreless tie, 0-0.
After the first couple of drives in the second quarter resulted in no points, it was the Wolfpack that got the scoring started, establishing the ground game on a drive that culminated in a 19-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Zonovan Knight to make the score 7-0.
“It felt like an extremely big game,” Knight said. “You could tell by their demeanor on the field that [the Flames] were a little cocky about themselves.”
The Pack had another opportunity to get more points as sophomore safety Jakeen Harris picked off Liberty quarterback Malik Willis — a play in which junior safety Tanner Ingle would be called for targeting, resulting in his disqualification in his first game back since suffering an injury in the 31-20 win over Duke — on the ensuing drive to set up the offense with great field position. However, a fumble on a bad snap recovered by NC State backed the Pack up, and an interception thrown by junior quarterback Bailey Hockman would end any legit chance of scoring before halftime.
Instead, it was Liberty that was reinvigorated by the takeaway and Ingle’s disqualification, taking the ball 84 yards down the field on 10 plays that culminated in a Willis throw for a touchdown just before halftime to tie up the score 7-7.
After both teams punted to begin the second half, Liberty took the ball down the field again on a six-play, 53-yard drive that culminated in another Willis touchdown throw, giving the Flames their first lead, 14-7, midway through the third quarter.
The NC State offense stalled once again on the ensuing possession, but Hockman showed off his leg skills, performing a quick kick punt that would be downed on the 2-yard line. On the next play, redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore tackled Liberty running back Peytton Pickett in the end zone for a safety, cutting the lead to 14-9.
The next five drives would result in punts until freshman cornerback Aydan White picked off Willis, setting up NC State on the Liberty 26-yard line. Then, the Pack used a heavy dose of Knight on the ensuing drive, which ended in another touchdown run from Knight that put the Pack up 15-14 after a failed two-point conversion.
NC State got another big interception on the next Liberty drive, this from redshirt sophomore cornerback Isaac Duffy. Once again, however, the offense came up empty-handed and gave the ball back to Liberty with just over four minutes left.
Down one, the Flames drove down the field inside the NC State 30-yard line, forcing the Pack to burn the last of its timeouts. With 1:18 left, Liberty attempted a go-ahead field goal, but it was blocked by redshirt junior Vi Jones, giving the Pack the ball back with a chance to seal the game.
“It was just a desperation block,” Jones said. “I just jumped as high as I could. I remember seeing the ball coming, and just ‘Boom.’ It hits me right on my elbow, and I was like ‘Oh, I blocked it.’”
Liberty still had three timeouts on the next NC State possession, but after a run by junior running back Ricky Person Jr. forced the first Liberty timeout, Knight ran for a first down on the next play, effectively snuffing out the Flames.
The win is the second of the year for NC State against a top-25 team. While the Flames had their way against ACC opponents Syracuse and Virginia Tech earlier in the season, they had their torch extinguished by the Pack.