NC State looked like they were in total control of their rival, leading UNC 35-25 going into the fourth quarter. Then it all fell apart and the Pack lost 43-35. Now it's time for a final look at the contest with some Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
Key moment of the game:
The 74-yard punt return by Giovani Bernard, UNC's star redshirt sophomore running back, won the game, but the contest should have not reached that point. Here are some moments where State wasted opportunities:
- After converting seven of their first 14 third down opportunities, the Pack failed on third and three at their own 44 with 13:28 to go in the game up 35-25. Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Glennon was pressured by UNC senior linebacker Kevin Reddick into an incomplete pass. If State converts there, they may be able to finish off a drive and put the contest away.
- After UNC took the following possession for a touchdown to cut the lead to 35-32, the Pack used two runs by redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy for a first down at the NCSU 44. That's when fifth-year senior guard R.J. Mattes false started, and Reddick sacked Glennon on the next play for a four-yard loss, killing the drive.
- UNC punted on its next possession, and freshman running back Shadrach Thornton ran three times for 11 yards and a first down with 4:44 to go in the game. With the ball at the NCSU 37, instead of running again, NCSU chose to pass three straight times. All three passes were incomplete, and just 13 more seconds go off the clock before State punts it away. UNC tied it with a field goal on its next possession.
The Pack will look at those three possessions as wasted opportunities.
Three things that worked:
1. Throwing against UNC's defense
All the talk in the week leading up to the game was how Duke ran the ball so well against UNC. Folks forgot that both Wake Forest's Tanner Price and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas had their best throwing games all year against UNC, and both by nearly 100 yards better than their second bests.
NC State is a better passing team than running, and they exploited that weakness in UNC's defense. Glennon completed 29 of 52 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns.
2. Seizing control after the first quarter
UNC threw the kitchen sink at NC State in the first quarter, and they were aided by a costly fumble from fifth-year senior tight end Mario Carter that gave the Heels first down at the Wolfpack 25. UNC led 25-7 at the first quarter break, but once things settled down, NC State did a great job establishing control of the contest. The Pack scored the next 28 points and looked like the better team for much of the game.
3. Containing Bernard for three quarters
The main reason UNC's offense stalled after the first quarter was because State did not let Bernard run wild. At the end of the third quarter, Bernard had rushed 16 times for just 46 yards, a meager 2.9 yards per carry. His one punt return was also shut down for no gain. He did do some damage in the passing game, catching seven passes for 76 yards.
Three things that did not work:
1. Containing Bernard in the fourth quarter
Whether it was because the NCSU defense started to wear down or because Bernard is a special player (or both), Bernard took over in the fourth quarter. He ran seven times for 89 yards, caught a 19-yard pass and of course had the big punt return for the win. Bernard may have secured ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors with his performance in the fourth quarter.
2. Stopping the big plays
The one common theme defensively in NCSU's losses is allowing the big plays on defense. The Pack allowed five plays of at least 36 yards. UNC had six scoring drives. Three of them were set up by a big offensive play, including a 45-yard touchdown run on a reverse by senior wide receiver Erik Highsmith. Then the seventh score by UNC was the long punt return.
3. Protecting the football
The other theme of State's losses has been turnovers. The Pack turned it over four more times, one of which led to a short field for another one of UNC's scoring drives. In total, four of UNC's six offensive scores were set up by or the result of either a big play or a turnover. Protecting the football though also extended to the fundamental of catching the pass. NCSU had too many dropped passes Saturday, which probably allowed UNC to stay in a game that should have been put away.
Breaking down the position battles:
NC State's OL vs. UNC's front seven
UNC was much more aggressive bringing heat in the second half and that resulted in the Heels getting five sacks by the end of the game. Overall though the offensive line, especially in the first half, protected well, and State did run well late in the game but did not commit to it.
NC State's front seven vs. UNC's OL
State sacked UNC redshirt junior quarterback Bryn Renner twice and held Bernard in check for three quarters, a good effort against a very well-respected UNC offensive line that had given up just five sacks all season.
NC State's WR vs. UNC's DB
Maybe the biggest mismatch of the afternoon on either side of the ball. UNC simply could not cover State's receivers. The only thing that stopped NCSU's passing game were dropped passes and some untimely sacks.
NC State's DB vs. UNC's WR
Covering UNC's wide outs were not that big of a challenge. The UNC running backs and tight ends were responsible for 226 of UNC's 358 passing yards.
Renner is a capable quarterback being aided by a dominant offensive line and a special running back. Glennon was more of a difference maker Saturday. Both had good games, but Glennon was probably the better performer of the two.
It's hard to imagine that there are many running backs in the country better than Bernard. Even when you can contain him for much of the game, he finds a way to carry the team on his back in the fourth quarter.
UNC sophomore Eric Ebron can be a special talent. He caught four passes for 79 yards, and he was open a few other times as well. He had some drops and mental mistakes, but if he clears those up his potential if off the charts. His backup, sophomore Jack Tabb, was solid with three receptions for 36 yards.
State's Carter caught three passes for 31 yards but had the costly fumble as well, and redshirt junior Asa Watson was held to just one reception for 16 yards.
The edge goes to UNC as Bernard made the ultimate play to win the game. Both teams missed a field goal, and neither had a great afternoon returning kicks prior to Bernard's runback.