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NC State kicked off its 2011 season against reigning Big South co-champions Liberty on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium and won 43-21. Although Liberty made it a competitive game in the first half, NC State started clicking in the second half and put the game away with several big plays from their defense and special teams.
"I think that we can play good defense, getting seven turnovers was more than we created all preseason in scrimmages, so it's a pretty good night on defense," head coach Tom O'Brien said. "The thing about special teams is that you have to outwork your opponent. When you get a second chance, you have yo figure out how to make it count."
The Mike Glennon era did not start off the way most fans were hoping for when the Pack went three-and-out on their first possession. The scoreless tie continued until late in the quarter when the Pack went on an 11-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in the first points of the season. True freshman kicker Niklas Sade converted on the inaugural try of his collegiate career, nailing a 33-yard field goal late with less than a minute left in the opening frame.
Liberty quarterback Mike Brown fumbled on the next possession for the Flames with new middle linebacker Audie Cole pouncing on the loose ball. On the next player, though, Liberty cornerback Walt Aikens blindsided Glennon, which forced a fumble that was returned 32 yards by defensive end Francis Bah for the touchdown.
The Pack offense could not respond, but the defense held strong to force another punt. After another three-and-out for NC State, things were looking bleak until the defense forced a Liberty punt that T.J. Graham returned 82 yards for a touchdown. Although Sade's point-after was no good, the Pack took a 9-7 lead and would never trail again.
On the ensuing Liberty possession, Brown was intercepted on second-and-eight by safety-turned-linebacker D.J. Green, a sophomore who made the first start of his career on Saturday night.
That could have been the spark that the NC State offense needed because they marched down the field on an efficient 10-play, 57-yard drive that was capped by a James Washington plunge into the end zone from one yard out with 32 seconds left in the half.
The squads traded punts to open the second half before Liberty started driving down the field. After gaining 31 yards on just four plays, Brown took off and tried to get some extra yardage but was hit by safety Earl Wolff, which caused a fumble that was picked up and returned 52 yards for a touchdown by defensive tackle Brian Slay.
Liberty wasted no time to answer the score and needed just two plays and an NC State personal foul penalty to march 64 yards down the field and close the gap to 23-15. Brown found star receiver Chris Summers in the end zone from 27 yards out, but Summers was penalized for excessive celebration, which primed NC State for another big play from its special teams.
Graham logged a 44-yard kickoff return to the 33-yard line and, two plays later, Curtis Underwood took a handoff from Glennon and raced 33 yards to find pay dirt. Another successful point-after from Sade stretched the lead back to 30-15.
Liberty answered with a field goal from Matt Bevins, who converted from 50 yards away then forced another NC State punt. Bevins was called on again and connected on a 38-yarder with 14:21 left in the game, which brought the Flames within nine, 30-21, early in the fourth quarter.
NC State was not able to tally any points on their following possession, but an eight-play drive ate over four minutes off the clock, their longest drive of the game. The Pack defense held strong and forced another Liberty punt. On the second play of the drive, Underwood broke another big run and rumbled 35 yards into Liberty territory before he fumbled the ball.
Liberty took over and had the momentum on their side after two unanswered scores, but Brown was on the move again on first down and senior defensive end Jeff Rieskamp jarred the ball loose. Slay made his second fumble recovery of the game with under eight minutes left.
A 15-yard run by James Washington and a 13-yard completion to Steven Howard set up a three-yard touchdown strike from Glennon to tight end Mario Carter. Sade's point-after was blocked, but the Pack lead was stretched to 36-21.
After a five-yard rush from Brown, sophomore cornerback David Amerson stepped in front of a pass from the quarterback and returned the interception 47 yards to the Liberty 19. Washington broke away on first down for a touchdown that made it 43-21 in favor of the home team.
Amerson stepped in front of another Brown pass on the next drive, which effectively ended the game. Redshirt freshman Tony Creecy ended the game with a seven-yard rush on first down as the clock ran out.
Underwood finished the game with 114 yards on the ground and a score despite rushing just 14 times while Washington ran 14 times for 67 yards and two scores. Glennon, in the first start of his career, finished 18-of-31 for 156 yards and a score.
On the other side of the ball, Wolff led the defense with 10 tackles, in addition to a forced fumble and an interception. Amerson finished with eight tackles, two picks and three pass breakups while Slay tallied five tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.