In a matchup with one of the best offenses in the nation, NC State defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unit put up its best performance of the year, stifling a Liberty offensive attack led by star QB Malik Willis and keeping the Wolfpack in the game.
The Flames entered Carter-Finley Stadium averaging 40.5 points scored per game on an average of 490 yards of total offense. Those figures ranked 17th and 18th, respectively, in the nation. Against NC State, it managed just 14 points and 279 yards, both season lows.
“They carried us; it was awesome to see,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “Those kids rose up against a really good Liberty offense… it was a great performance by that side of the football.”
Against one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Gibson challenged his players to play a full game, and NC State’s defense responded, especially in its back end. Willis came into the contest throwing for 235 yards a game on 68% completions and rushing for another 100 yards. Willis also had a reputation for taking care of the ball in the pass game with 15 touchdowns thrown to just one interception. NC State’s defense, though, intercepted Willis three times. More impressively, maybe, was that it held him to just 44 yards rushing on 2.9 yards per carry.
“That was one of our keys to victory this week,” said redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore. “Condensing the pocket and keeping him in there… We know he’s a great athlete. He can throw it and he can run it. We just tried to give him some different looks, get him to hold that ball a little bit longer than he wanted to. He got rattled a little bit early, and we were able to dial up the blitzes from there.”
With Willis hemmed in, pressure got there early and often for NC State. The unit had three sacks and seven quarterback hurries. With all that traffic around a quarterback, it’s hard to make good decisions and throw accurate balls, which led to Willis throwing so many picks.
The first came in the second quarter as sophomore safety Jakeen Harris caught an overthrown deep shot by Willis. Harris had his first career interception wiped out by a targeting call against Pittsburgh, but Ingle’s penalty came afterwards so his takeaway stood.
The second happened in the fourth quarter with NC State down 14-9. With true freshman cornerback Aydan White receiving non-special teams snaps for just the second game this year, he recognized the route concept developing in front of him from film study and jumped it for his first career interception.
“No. 1 motioned in, I told Tyler [Baker-Williams] ‘Bump, bump, bump,’ and we already know No. 1 is coming up and doing an out route,” White said. “So [I was] really just being prepared and waiting on it, and picking it off.”
After NC State’s offense scored to take the lead, Willis threw yet another interception on the ensuing possession, this one to redshirt sophomore cornerback Isaac Duffy, who was playing for the ejected Tanner Ingle. Willis threw into double coverage deep, and Duffy made him pay with his first career pick.
NC State’s secondary has been much maligned, but this coaching staff has it looking night and day compared to past years’ iterations. For these young players to step up speaks to the job new cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, new nickels coach Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay and new safeties coach Joe DeForest have done.
While the secondary racked up all the turnovers, the other levels of NC State’s defense stood out as well. Graduate defensive end Daniel Joseph put up back-to-back sacks of Willis to single-handedly derail a Liberty drive while redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore put 2 points on the board for NC State with a safety, set up by a 55-yard punt by redshirt junior quarterback Bailey Hockman downed at Liberty’s 3.
“I told the guys before we went out [that drive], ‘We’re going to win this game. We’re gonna find a way to win, offense is going to score, we’re not gonna give the lead back,’” Moore said. "But we definitely needed a spark, and I was happy I was able to go out there and make a play.”
The biggest play, though, was the one that won the Wolfpack the game. With Liberty set to kick a 39-yard, game-winning field goal, redshirt junior linebacker Vi Jones blocked the attempt, sealing a 15-14 NC State win. Jones’ block, his third of a punt or field goal this year, came as no surprise, as the backup linebacker continued to make his mark on special teams.
While Jones rightfully will receive all the glitz and glam for his clutch play, the only reason why NC State was in a position to knock off its second ranked team this year was because of the work of its defensive unit. It constantly held serve, despite eight of the offense’s 14 drives ending in punts, half of which were three-and-outs. No one expected it, but NC State won this game on the back of its defense.