In a game the Wolfpack had to have, the NC State defense delivered another timely dominating performance, all but wrapping up the victory in a big red bow and handing it to coach Chuck Amato. Unfortunately for the Pack, that package never made it home, as it was derailed again by turnovers, penalties, and kicking struggles.
Georgia Tech escaped Raleigh with a 24-14 victory, sealed by sophomore cornerback Kenny Scott's first career interception, a 49-yard pick returned for a score with 1:44 remaining in the game. Despite again totaling more yardage than its opponent, which has happened in every game this year, State again gave up three turnovers, all of which were interceptions of first-year starting quarterback Jay Davis. Davis also threw five interceptions last week against Clemson. In its five losses, the Pack has 21 turnovers, compared to only five in its four wins.
"He has to come out of this slump and we as coaches need to do everything that we can to help him in these young years," Amato said about Davis following the game. "Jay is our QB and we are sticking with him right now. Marcus was not ready to go today. It would not have been fair to put in another quarterback today, so that is why we stuck with Jay."
Jay Davis interceptions were not the only reason the Pack lost. Despite what looked to be another dominating effort by State's defense, ranked third in the nation coming into the game, NC State's offensive line struggled early on and became ineffective in the second half.
The Pack's patchwork offensive line was unable to give its junior quarterback anytime to make plays. The Georgia Tech defense broke through the line for seven sacks and 10 tackles for losses, and after clearing out enough for 89 rushing yards in the first half, in the second half the offense totaled -17 yards rushing. Despite the inconsistent protection, the Wolfpack was able to make some big plays including a 43-yard 1st-quarter pass to Lamart Barrett and a 28-yard reception by John Dunlap, who received the surprise start in place of injured star wideout Richard Washington. Barrett led all receivers in with five catches for 93 yards.
Only once was the Wolfpack able to capitalize on its big plays with a touchdown. That came when a healthy T.A. McLendon burst upfield and broke a two-tackler sandwich to march in for a 20-yard touchdown run near the end of the first quarter. On the occasions when NC State couldn't get in the end zone, kicker John Deraney was unable to make field goals. Deraney missed from 34, 40 and 52 yards, and has now connected on just 11 of 20 attempts this season.
"I feel bad for John because he is a good kicker," said Amato. "He just needs to keep his mind focused, and everything will come back."
In a game where the Wolfpack's offense continued its red zone struggles, the defense came up big. NC State forced 3rd and long situations all day. Georgia Tech rarely found itself in short yardage situations, as out of 16 3rd down plays, only three times did the Jackets need less than six yards for a first down. Of those 16 third downs, the Jackets only converted four. Out of thirteen possessions, six ended with three-and-outs, and three ended with interceptions. The Pack's delayed blitzes and consistent pressure from the ends forced Tech quarterback Reggie Ball into a horrific day passing, as he completed just 9 of 28 for 91 yards. Ball, known as a dangerous rusher, ran seven times for only 18 yards.
Mario Williams and Oliver Hoyte frequently shed their blockers to corral Ball in the pocket, with Williams getting a sack and Hoyte registering two tackles for losses. The pressure on Ball opened the door for two interceptions by cornerback Dovonte Edwards and one by safety Marcus Hudson. Edwards' two interceptions matched his total for last season. He ran his second back 57 yards for a touchdown, but the touchdown was nullified after another of NC State's increasingly frequent penalties.
Marcus Hudson's interception could have been the play of the game if the Wolfpack had come away victorious. With the 1:06 remaining in the half and the game tied 7-7, the Jackets had the ball on the 50-yard line and were in position to take a lead into halftime. But State's defense forced the Jackets into a 3rd and 12 situation, and with the pocket collapsing around him, Ball made a poor 10-yard throw under duress right into the white #1 on Hudson's jersey. Led by a caravan of red jersey's, Hudson exploded past a couple of Yellow Jacket players on his way to the end zone, giving the Pack a 14-7 lead, and reclaiming the game's momentum.
Unfortunately for Pack defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, NC State's offense and kicking game continued their struggles. Despite moving the ball with great success, Jay Davis again was victimized by three interceptions, the last of which proving fatally ill-timed.
By the 4th quarter, with the Pack tenuously holding onto a 14-7 lead, the Pack defense was wearing down. A short punt by John Deraney and Davis' second interception gave the Jackets two possessions starting in NC State territory, at the 41 and 49, respectively. That's when super freshman Calvin Johnson introduced himself to the Wolfpack faithful, making two unnaturally acrobatic catches for a total of 39 yards in the 4th quarter. The Jackets were able to come away with a field goal and touchdown, with the 4th-and-goal 1-yard pass to Levon Thomas giving them a 17-14 lead with 7:15 to go in the game.
With 7:06 to go and the ball on State's own 13, Davis led the Pack 64 yards to the Georgia Tech 23-yard line. But on 2nd and 7 with 4:10 remaining in the game, the Jacket's again got past State's offensive line and wrapped Davis up for a big loss. Davis refused to go down and sidearmed a short pass into the ground as he was falling. After the intentional grounding penalty, NC State faced 3rd and 22 from the Tech 38, and ultimately had to settle for a 54-yard field goal attempt, which Deraney was again unable to fit between the uprights.
Even after surrending the ball to the Jackets on the 38 with 3:33 and a 17-14 lead, the Wolfpack was able to find another breath of life. The defense stopped the Jackets in three plays, its sixth forced three-and-out possession of the game, and after an eight-yard punt return by Darrell Blackman, the Pack was in business with 2:00 minutes to go and the ball on its 38-yard line. But the groans would soon cascade down from the stands, as on 2nd and 10 with Davis missed on an out to the left sideline intended for Dunlap, which Scott stepped in front of and jaunted untouched 49 yards for the game-sealing touchdown.
Georgia Tech was bolstered by an outstanding effort by third string running back Rashaun Grant, a big-time recruit for the Jackets who was also pursued by NC State. After Chris Woods, who started in place of injured P.J. Daniels, left the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury, Grant came in and didn't miss a beat. The red-shirt freshman made his debut with 126 yards on 20 carries, and broke off long runs of 26 and 33 yards.
The Pack's strong rushing attack was surprisingly slowed by the Jacket's stout defense, despite the fact the McLendon was healthy and started. NC State's stable of running backs totaled just 72 yards and only averaged 2.2 per carry. McLendon rushed 18 times for 50 yards and one touchdown.
Amato believes his team can play better. "I must say that I'm embarrassed. I am embarrassed for the fans and the students. When we get down we have got to fight through it. It got ugly on the field today."
The loss was damaging to NC State's bowl hopes, leaving the Wolfpack at 4-5 overall and 3-4 in the ACC. Just to be bowl eligible, NC State will need to upset the 6-2 Seminoles this Thursday and follow that up with a win against East Carolina.