NC State got a much-needed victory by doing to Wake Forest what some opponents have been doing to them lately.
NC State came out the aggressor Saturday and built a 17-point first quarter lead that set the tone the rest of the game at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack dominated Wake Forest 37-6 to improve to 6-4 overall (3-3 ACC) and become bowl eligible for the fourth time in six years under coach Tom O'Brien.
The fast start mirrored what has been happening against NC State of late. North Carolina jumped out to a 25-7 lead in the first quarter and eventually wont 43-35 on Oct. 27, and Virginia held an early 14-0 lead after the opening quarter last week in the Cavaliers 33-6 victory. NC State last held a first quarter lead against The Citadel on Sept. 22.
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"I'm really happy for this football team," O'Brien said. "They found their footing again and came out at the start, and got off to a fast start, which I think we had to do. They then stayed after them."
NCSU racked up 428 yards on an impressive 94 plays while running the no-huddle offense, and its special teams finished with 19 of the 37 points. Fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer entered the record books with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open up the third quarter to build a commanding 24-6 lead, and sophomore kicker Niklas Sade added three field goals.
"I knew I had to step up and make a big play for my team," Palmer said. "The guys, the captains came out and said we needed a big play."
NC State's defense was equally impressive as the offense and special teams. The Wolfpack secondary did a marvelous job in shutting down Wake Forest redshirt junior star wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who had just five catches for 14 yards. His only impact came with his right arm, when he threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to senior teammate Terence Davis with 10:33 left in the second quarter for the Demon Deacons lone score, which made it 17-6.
"We worked all week on No. 3 [Campanaro]," O'Brien said. "[NCSU junior cornerback] Dontae Johnson did a great job. He was matched up with him all day long. We got pressure on the quarterback all day too, which helps."
Wake Forest mustered just nine first downs, was sacked five times and had 16 rushing yards on 23 carries. NCSU redshirt sophomore defensive end Art Norman led the way with 2 1/2 sacks, and he has recorded sacks in three of the last four games.
"We came out and played all four quarters, finally," NCSU fifth-year senior strong safety Earl Wolff said. "Sometimes, we'll play the first and play the second, and hang in there, but I can honestly say we played all four quarters tonight."
NC State did a complete role reversal from last week's 33-6 loss to Virginia. No one knew which version of the Wolfpack would take the field against the Demon Deacons.
"We were at a crossroads and I told them, the last thing after the pregame meal," O'Brien said. "Which road are you going to take? The road that leads to a bowl game or the road that doesn't lead to a bowl game.
"As we walked off the field Friday, our goal was to put a 2012 down there with the rest of the bowls down there. We got that done."
NC State's offense still had a few more drops than preferred, and finished with a pair of turnovers, but some of the players found ways to redeem themselves. Redshirt junior tight end Asa Watson dropped some passes, but then came though with a 26-yard touchdown reception from fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Glennon to give the Wolfpack a 31-6 lead with 9:23 left in the third quarter.
Glennon, who went 25-of-41 passing for 258 yards, also had a second touchdown pass earlier in the game to redshirt sophomore fullback Logan Winkles, who got wide open for a five-yard score with 37 seconds left in the fast-start first quarter.
"This was really a great team win," Glennon said. "That was Asa's first touchdown of his career, and I'm real happy for him. He's a guy that works extremely hard and never complains. He just does his job."
Helping Glennon out was a revitalized running game, led by freshman running back Shadrach Thornton, who tallied 110 yards on 27 carries. Redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy chipped in 36 yards on 14 carries and got the first touchdown of the game with 11:19 left in the first quarter.
The Wolfpack finished with 170 yards on 50 carries and the Creecy score on the ground. The offensive line also kept Glennon relatively clean, allowing two sacks despite another different starting lineup.
"We were able to establish the run game early, and continued it through the game," NCSU senior center Camden Wentz said. "You know that is going to help your efficiency on offense, not having to drop back all the time. That was key."
Even Palmer's kick return helped redeem himself from a costly fumble at Wake Forest's 21-yard line on the first series of the game. NC State quickly made up for the turnover by forcing one of its own with senior free safety Brandan Bishop snagging a deflected high pass to WFU's Brandon Terry at the Demon Deacons' 31-yard line.
Palmer joined T.J. Graham as NC State return men who have gone 100 yards for a touchdown on a kick return. He also caught seven passes for 63 yards.
"We always start slow in the second half," Palmer said. "I feel like it's a blessing and an accomplishment that I've always wanted to accomplish."
Wake Forest fell to 5-5 overall and 3-5 in the ACC, and have Notre Dame and Vanderbilt remaining on the schedule to try and become bowl eligible.
NC State closes the season at Clemson next Saturday, and then the seniors close out their careers at Carter-Finley Stadium against Boston College on Nov. 24. The next two games will help determine what kind of bowl game the Wolfpack get invited to.
"It's important now that we continue to go," O'Brien said. "We are probably playing a top 10 football team next week down at Death Valley. It will be a great challenge but something our football team will look forward too."