The N.C. State Wolfpack (5-7, 2-6 ACC) beat the No. 23 North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4, 4-4 ACC) for the third year in a row, winning an exciting 28-27 contest Saturday afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes as the team rallied around the absence of offensive coordinator Dana Bible, who was diagnosed with acute meyloid lukemia and forced to miss his second straight game.
"This was great for the kids, and especially for the seniors," head coach Tom O'Brien said. "We are all happy for them. It has been one of my toughest years as a head coach with everything that has happened to us. The team could have folded but we continued to play hard and remain tough and physical."
North Carolina started the game with the ball and immediately cut through the Pack defense, driving into the red zone on just seven plays. However, a holding penalty knocked the Heels back to the 22 and the Pack defense held the Tar Heels to three points, as Casey Barth broke open the game with a 31-yard field goal.
After being forced to punt, the Pack defense came up huge when it looked like the team was about to find themselves in a ten point hole. T.J. Yates hooked up with Greg Little on a 62-yard pass on first down and the Tar Heels seemed poised to score from the ten-yard line. Johnny White picked up nine yards and appeared headed for the end zone but Jarvis Byrd caused a fumble and the loose ball was recovered for a touchback by C.J. Wilson.
The Pack was only down by three points at the start of the second quarter despite being outgained in total yardage, 146 to 15, and not picking up a first down in the opening quarter. However, that quickly changed after North Carolina opened the second quarter with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Yates to Jheranie Boyd on the first play of the quarter.
NC State responded to the 45 second scoring drive by marching 71 yards down the field and capping their own scoring drive with Wilson's first touchdown pass to Jarvis Williams. A Tar Heel pass interference call on second down allowed the Pack to pick up their first first down of the contest and allowed the Pack to finally gain some momentum and field position. However, North Carolina would need only two plays to answer with another touchdown as White scored on a 40-yard run with 9:28 remaining in the half to give the Heels a 17-7 lead.
The Pack responded to the quick North Carolina strike with another long drive over 70 yards. The drive was spurred by three Tar Heel penalties, which included two pass interference infractions and a personal foul. Wilson hooked up with Williams, who was the game's leading receiver with seven catches, for their second touchdown of the day from the 14-yard line.
The rivals traded punts again before North Carolina struck with their third scoring drive of three plays or less, giving the Heels a 24-14 advantage at half time. The final score of the first half was a 70-yard pass from Yates to Boyd on second-and-five. The Pack did take the ball with 35 seconds remaining on the clock but clock mismanagement prevented the Pack from being able to collect any more points before the break, despite a promising start to their drive.
The second half opened with the Pack stalling again on offense, collecting only 22 yards before punting to the Tar Heels. The offense, which only had 133 yards up to this point, would soon wake up after the State defense held the North Carolina offense to negative-two yards on their opening drive of the second half.
The Pack's awakening started with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Owen Spencer on first down to bring the home team within three points. The Tar Heels quickly responded with Barth's second field goal of the game, this one from 20 yards out. Barth's field goal was made possible by a halfback pass from Ryan Houston to Little that went for 42 yards and netted an extra ten after Brian Slay was flagged for a personal foul. Despite having first and goal on the ten, the Heels could not finish the drive and were forced to attempt the short kick.
The teams traded unsuccessful drives again before Spencer caught his second touchdown pass of the day, a 38-yard connection on the second play of the fourth quarter. The score gave the Pack their first lead of the game and, thanks to a strong defensive showing, would end up as the final tally. The Pack defense would allow only 75 yards in the fourth quarter and came up biggest in the most clutch situations.
The Tar Heel offense was driving late in the fourth quarter when Boyd was brought down for a 12-yard loss on a second down run by Willie Young, which would eventually force a Tar Heel field goal attempt. Barth's 38-yard attempt with just over four and a half minutes left on the clock was blocked by Alan-Michael Cash and the Pack responded by with a drive featuring a heavy dose of Toney Baker, who finished with 62 yards rushing and three catches for 43 yards. Baker's hard-nosed running drained the clock to 23 seconds although the Pack could not convert a fourth-and-12 from the 28-yard line. Spencer got his hands on Wilson's pass in the end zone but could not haul in the game-sealing catch.
Yates' pass on the Heels' first play of their final drive was intercepted by Clem Johnson at the 48 and the senior safety finalized the Pack's third straight win over the Heels on Senior Day. Wilson, who guided the offense to a turnover-free day, finished the day 20-of-27 for 259 yards and four touchdowns despite O'Brien assuming the play calling duties in Bible's absence. Spencer led the Pack with 130 receiving yards although the Tar Heels' Little led all players with 159 yards through the air. Williams entered the game leading the conference in touchdown receptions and brought his total up to 11 on the season.
The win was the first for the Pack over a ranked opponent since last year's upset of No. 25 North Carolina and the one-point difference was the closest margin of victory between the two teams since a 21-20 N.C. State victory in 1975.
"[Coach Bible] is in a tough situation," Johnson said. "He's fighting for his life. We tried to play our hardest for him and get the win."