NC State football looked set for another disappointing loss against its biggest rival, trailing by nine with 2:12 remaining in the game after jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
But sometimes, NC State can have nice things. For the second time this year, the Wolfpack faithful flooded the field at Carter-Finley Stadium to celebrate a win that fans will talk about long after all of them have graduated.
The fans rush the field pic.twitter.com/W4xMtWrJF9— Technician Sports (@TechSports) November 27, 2021
“What a football game,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “What a game. That’s why you play until the last second runs off the clock. So proud of our team, their fight. Coaching staff, their chemistry, the resolve of this team, the mental toughness, next man up. … I want to thank our crowd, the students on Thanksgiving break coming back. I love you. Our students are amazing. That was a special night. You guys were incredible. Thank you for that. Our seniors deserved that, and you guys delivered.”
Playing his final game in Carter-Finley Stadium, senior receiver Emeka Emezie cemented his place among the Wolfpack legends, making his final two receptions a pair of touchdowns to give NC State a 34-30 comeback win over UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday, Nov. 26 to secure a perfect home record for the first time in 35 years.
GO TO HEL CAROLINA!!!!!— Emeka (@Emekaemezie) November 27, 2021
“We were down with one, two minutes left,” Emezie said. “And I'm just seeing the crowd. My head was down, but I see in the crowd, somebody's shirt said, ‘Don't ever give up.’ I just started praying. You know? Like Jimmy V and I started praying. And then things just went away. It's crazy.”
The Wolfpack (9-3, 6-2 ACC) started the game incredibly well — forcing the Tar Heels (6-6, 3-5 ACC) into two quick three-and-outs, recovering a blocked punt for a touchdown and holding a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter — but its early momentum started to peter out, allowing the Tar Heels to cut the lead to 14-10 before the half.
With 24 unanswered points from the start of the second quarter to the tail end of the third quarter, UNC was in firm control of the game and looking to put the final nail in NC State’s dwindling hopes of an ACC Championship berth.
But the Wolfpack wouldn’t lay down.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary connected with redshirt junior receiver Thayer Thomas, who did well to snake his way through a few defenders and find the end zone, to put the Pack within striking distance, but it looked to be too little, too late as the offense sputtered out once again.
The defense did its part, however, holding UNC to just a pair of field goals and setting up the offense to pull off some magic.
Getting the ball back in his hands with 2:04 left on the clock, Leary and the offense came alive again as Emezie took the top off the defense with a 64-yard TD reception that put the Pack down two.
“They clouded the coverage — the safety had taken Thayer,” Emezie said. “I started running down the sideline, I was just hoping Devin would see me, and he just launched it up and I was wide open.”
With only 90 seconds and one timeout left, the Wolfpack still needed to recover the onside kick to have a chance. And it did, as junior kicker Chris Dunn recovered the ball to get the ball back.
Putting the ball back in Leary’s hands, Doeren said he had confidence in his quarterback to get it done and didn’t want to leave it up to the kicker.
Leary didn’t disappoint, marching down the field to deliver a 24-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Emezie. The play was one fans have become accustomed to seeing Leary and Emezie link up on.
“[Offensive coordinator Tim Beck] asked me, ‘Do you want us to run the ball a little bit?’ and I said, ‘No, Devin’s hot. Let’s just score,’” Doeren said. “Didn’t want to put it on the kicker and risk whatever could happen there, so we were gonna be aggressive and go down the field. And the way Devin plays in the fourth quarter and in clutch situations, we knew something good was gonna happen.”
With over a minute still on the clock, the defense still had some work to do. The Tar Heels marched down the field and had a shot at the end zone with a last-second hail mary, but graduate cornerback Derrek Pitts Jr. was able to come down with the interception and secure the win.
With his four passing touchdowns, Leary broke legendary Wolfpack quarterback Phillip Rivers’ single-season passing touchdown record. Emezie and Leary have linked up to build an amazing connection over their Wolfpack careers and the two linking up for not only big touchdowns, but record-breaking ones, is far from unexpected.
“It's amazing,” Leary said. “It really is. It's a blessing too. I mean, it's crazy just to think how far we came as a program and how far I've come myself as a quarterback, as a player and a leader of this team. You know, being able to have a receiver and a teammate and a friend like Emeka just helps me become that much better. I mean, the dude works his butt off.”
Now the Wolfpack will turn its attention to tomorrow’s Boston College vs. Wake Forest game to see if it makes the ACC Championship game.
“I gave everybody tomorrow off, we need to get away from here for a day,” Doeren said. “It’s been a lot: 10 night games, a short week [this week]. But yeah, we’ll all be posted up somewhere watching BC and Wake, and obviously we’re Boston College Eagles fans tomorrow, and hoping for something good to happen to allow us to go play in Charlotte. That’s what we’re gonna be doing.”