RALEIGH — It was a festive mood for the first game of the Tom O'Brien era at North Carolina State.
Cars were lined up for miles, tents were out in full force and the Student Wolfpack Club section filled up fast at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
The anticipation before the game culminated when the NC State players came out of the new cave at the South tunnel. The band, dance team and cheerleaders built the crowd up before the 2007 team came slowly out of the tunnel led by tri-captains John Dunlap and Marcus Stone.
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The next wave was led Miguel Scott and the Wolfpack team came pouring out of the tunnel in a cloud of smoke and fireworks. The festive turned in a hurry.
NC State couldn't overcome a dismal first half, falling 25-23 to Central Florida in its season opener.
"We couldn't get out of our own way," O'Brien said. "We were very much improved in the second half. Of course we're disappointed with the outcome, but we're not discouraged. We'll build on what we did and use that momentum."
The fireworks on the field were slow to develop for NC State. UCF completely dominated the first half, building a 25-3 lead, but the Wolfpack showed some character to battle back.
"There was no panic," O'Brien said. "There was no hollering or screaming. We were going out and play one play at a time."
NC State quarterback Harrison Beck started the second half in place of Daniel Evans, and perhaps, permanently won the job with his sterling comeback attempt.
Beck sparked the offense, and Andre Brown took over the running game in the second half for the Wolfpack.
"Harrison played a role and came out there and threw the ball well," Brown said. "Darrell Blackman, especially that punt return, that is really what set it off. It got everyone into it."
Brown ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run with 10:16 left in the third quarter, and later added a 24-yard run to get the Wolfpack down to the Knights' 4-yard line.
Beck hit fullback Pat Bedics for a 6-yard touchdown pass in the right flat to cut the lead to 25-17 with 14:04 left in the fourth quarter.
Beck continued to ignite the offense, hitting wide receiver Donald Bowens for a 14-yard touchdown on third and 12, cutting the UCF lead to 25-23.
The Wolfpack went for two, but Beck's pass to Marcus Stone was incomplete.
"I think it showed a little bit of the character of this football team," Beck said. "It was a little different from last year. We kept fighting.
"We put ourselves in a hole early, I think. We came out and got a couple of first downs and got a little bit of rhythm on offense. We came back and almost had a chance to win the football game at the end. I'm proud of the guys on the team."
UCF got momentum back on the following kickoff with Darin Baldwin returning it 42 yards to the Knights' 49-yard line. NC State's defense stiffened at its own 40-yard line, thanks to a big open-field tackle by safety Scott on UCF star back Kevin Smith, who caught a swing pass out of the backfield. Forced to punt, NC State got the ball back at the 20-yard line with 6:06 left in the game.
UCF's Travis Timmons came up with a huge sack of minus 10 yards, putting the Wolfpack in a hole. Beck and the Wolfpack eventually faced a fourth and six at their own 39-yard line with 4:29 left in the game.
Beck facing pressure, hit Dunlap in the flat, but came up about five yards short of the first down.
UCF did its best to run out the clock with Smith. Needing one more first down, UCF quarterback Kyle Israel did a sneak up the middle on fourth down and got it on the second surge. From there, the Knights were able to run off valuable minutes.
"He [Smith] ran very hard and is fast," said NC State defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, who gutted it out with a left elbow strain. "He is a good back."
The first down was aided by a substitition penalty against the Wolfpack.
"We had two very bad substitution penalties, and the fault is on the coaching staff and our team," O'Brien said. "Unfortunately, it took us out of a potential field goal opportunity on offense at the end."
The Wolfpack had one last chance, getting the ball at their own 21-yard line with 52.5 seconds left, but Beck's drive stalled when Jarvis Williams got tackled in play and short of a first down. Following a penalty, Beck tried a Hail Mary, but it wasn't answered, giving the Knights the win when his pass was intercepted by UCF's Joe Burnett.
The first play of the O'Brien era will be one the coaching staff will want to forget.
UCF star back Smith zipped around the right end for an 80-yard touchdown run on Central Florida's first play from scrimmage. Smith rushed for a staggering 177 yards on 19 carries in the first half.
"We got off to a slow start," O'Brien said. "We game them all kinds of opportunities and left the defense on the field. The defense hung in there and wore down a little bit. You can't give up an 80-yard touchdown to start with."
The hits kept coming for the Wolfpack. On NC State's first offensive possession, quarterback Evans had his pass deflected and into the hands of UCF linebacker Lawrence Young, an unexpected starter for the Knights.
UCF's turned the interception into a 40-yard field goal, to make the score 10-0 with 13:03 left in the first quarter.
NC State's first big play on defense came via a sack by outside linebacker LeRue Rumph, forcing a fumble on the play, but UCF was able to recover it. Central Florida eventually punted on the series.
UCF pinned NC State deep and took advantage of it. NC State left guard Curtis Crouch whiffed on a block, and Evans reacted poorly to converging UCF defender Bruce Miller. Evans lost track of where he was and fell down in the end zone with Miller getting the sack and safety, giving UCF a 12-0 lead with 5:06 left in the first quarter.
UCF kicker Michael Torres tacked on the second of three first-half field goals from 36 yards out to make it 15-0 with 3:48 left.
NC State finally got on the board with a 29-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka with 12:57 left in the second quarter for the first points of Hauschka's Wolfpack career.
Smith continued his hot ways running the football, scoring on an eight-yard run to give the Knights a 22-3 lead. Smith also did the bulk of the work to set up Torres' chip-shot 19-yard field goal by Torres to close out the first half, sending UCF into the locker room with a 25-3 lead.
"It was obviously a tough start to the season," O'Brien said. "We had nobody to blame but ourselves. We lost as a football team. We lost as coaches. We lost as players. We didn't do what we had to do to win as a football team."