RALEIGH -- What a feeling for the North Carolina State seniors, who finally found a way to defeat arch-rival North Carolina, snapping a three-game losing streak.
NC State's defense came through with a game-changing play to rally the Wolfpack to a 31-27 victory Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium. The win improves NCSU's record to 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the ACC, while UNC falls 3-7 overall.
"It's one of the best feelings," NC State senior tight end Marcus Stone said. "It was probably the biggest game of my career, and getting this win was amazing."
NC State's surprising four-game winning streak and chance for a bowl bid isn't all that shocking to the players or coaches.
"We're playing the way that we have to play to win football games," NC State coach Tom O'Brien said. "That's what this game is about. Putting your people in a position and giving them the best chance to win."
NC State's defense delivered its play of the game when sophomore defensive end Willie Young put the pressure on UNC freshman quarterback T.J. Yates, popping the ball into the hands of defensive tackle DeMario Pressley for the senior's second interception of the game at the Tar Heels' 25-yard line.
"It was like a relief, just pure joy," said NCSU safety DaJuan Morgan about Pressley's interception. "I just wanted him to get that pick. I was like 'Thank you God, thank you.'"
NCSU gave the ball the to sophomore running back Jamelle Eugene six straight times, for two separate first downs. Following a pass attempt, Eugene scampered one yard with 1:41 left to give the Wolfpack a 31-27 lead.
The 195-pound Eugene was a workhorse, rushing for 159 yards on a career-high 32 carries and three touchdowns, plus adding six receptions for 33 yards.
"It was big for the program, but it meant more to me for the seniors," Eugene said. "The guys in the past haven't had a chance to beat them. Now, the fans have something to brag about as they go to work. It's just a good thing for the city and the organization at North Carolina State."
North Carolina wasn't going down with a fight. The Tar Heels came through with a big fourth-down conversion to move into NC State territory in the final minute, and Brandon Tate caught a pass down to the seven-yard line with 20.3 seconds left.
"The last 20 seconds, the heart was racing," Morgan said.
Following three straight incomplete passes, the game came down to fourth down with 6.9 seconds left. The Tar Heels went to a fade route to sophomore wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and Jimmie Sutton III broke it up to preserve the victory.
"If they had caught that ball on fourth down, I would have been devastated," Stone said. "I was almost in tears sitting on the sideline while praying to stop them from scoring."
The first quarter was all NC State, with Eugene and the defense leading the way.
On the Tar Heels first series, NC State safety DaJuan Morgan intercepted Yates' pass at the UNC 48-yard line.
NC State took advantage of the good field position, and Steven Hauschka kicked a 40-yard field goal with 9:58 left in the first quarter.
Eugene capped off a powerful drive with a four-yard touchdown run with 3:13 left in the first quarter. Eugene gained 55 of the 88 yards, on five runs and a reception, on the scoring drive.
After UNC's Connor Barth missed on a 52-yard field goal, NC State once again drove the field for a 65-yard touchdown drive, ending on Eugene's 5-yard run with 12:13 left. Hauschka's extra point gave State an early 17-0 lead.
"It's always a good feeling to be up like that, especially in a rivalry game," Morgan said. "You have to stay poised because anything can happen.
"You know that momentum will come and that it is going to change up and down. Adversity is going to strike. We just kept our cool and stay poised."
Just as the Pack looked like it could add to its lead, NC State junior quarterback Daniel Evans overthrew tight end Marcus Stone and UNC's Charles Brown returned it 92 yards for a touchdown, the third longest interception return for a score in Tar Heels' history, cutting the lead to 17-7 with 9:37 left in the first half.
NC State went three and out on its next possession, and UNC pressured Bradley Pierson into a 17-yard punt. UNC took advantage of the field position, and Barth nailed a 47-yard field goal to cut State's lead to 17-10 with 6:31 left in the half.
The Wolfpack stopped the bleeding however with an 84-yard touchdown drive ending on Evans' 14-yard pass to a wide open Stone in the end zone. It was Stone's first career touchdown reception, and it gave NCSU a 24-10 lead with 3:02 left in the half.
The Tar Heels struck first in the second half with 8:05 remaining the third quarter when fullback Bobby Rome, a converted quarterback, connected with a wide open Tate for a 50-yard touchdown.
Barth hit his third field goal of the game to open up the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 24-20.
NC State's offense methodically moved the ball down the field behind Eugene, but disaster struck again.
Evans' short pass got tipped and was intercepted by Kendric Burney, who returned it 76 yards for a touchdown with 9:40 left in the game, setting up the exciting fourth quarter finish.
Evans was glad the team made up for his mistakes. He learned that when you defeat North Carolina, all is forgiven.
"I knew if we hadn't pulled it off, I was going to be the goat," Evans said. "I felt like I knew what I was seeing. They weren't doing a whole lot to confuse me out there. The interceptions, they weren't bad reads. I had guys open, but they were just bad throws."