NC State came out slinging it around against the Yellow Jackets. Sophomore quarterback Daniel Evans passed on the Wolfpack's first four offensive plays, completing just one but the series gave glimpses of what State wanted to do offensively.
On the ensuing drive, Georgia Tech would score the game's first touchdown, as Reggie Ball led a 10-play, 90-yard drive that ended with him connecting with his favorite target, All-American Calvin Johnson, on a 25-yard scoring strike.
The Wolfpack came right back to put points on the board. Evans and State marched down to the Tech 16-yard line, but after two straight incompletions, including one where tight end Anthony Hill was overthrown in the endzone, the Pack had to settle for a 33-yard John Deraney field goal.
It didn't take Tech long to answer. Just two minutes later, Ball would find Johnson open again, this time for a 43-yard touchdown reception as he beat cornerback A.J. Davis with a double move and was wide open down the sideline. The pass gave the Yellow Jackets a 14-3 lead at the end of the first quarter, as Tech made it a point to attack Davis all night long.
Behind Evans and the passing game, State continued to move the ball but struggled scoring touchdowns. Following Johnson's second touchdown catch, Evans directed another long drive keyed by a trio of consecutive completions netting 64 yards that gave the Pack the ball at the Tech 8-yard line. Again the drive would stall due to incompletions as Hill dropped a catchable but tough potential touchdown pass and Andre Brown dropped a swing pass. State had to settle for another field goal, this time a 25-yarder that made the deficit eight points at 14-6.
Next State would pick up a huge play from the defense, a unit that has struggled forcing turnovers all season. Dropping back to pass, Ball looked for fullback Mike Cox in the flat, but Pack linebacker Patrick Lowery jumped the route and intercepted the pass. Lowery returned the interception 26 yards for the touchdown, pulling the Pack within one point at 14-13.
As it did on previous State scoring drives, Tech would answer. This time Ball connected with the "other" Johnson, James Johnson, for 25 yards and the touchdown. Johnson broke three tackles on the play to reach the endzone, and following Travis Bell's third extra point, Tech entered halftime with a 21-13 advantage.
State, looking to attack Tech's vaunted zone-blitz defense through the air, tallied 199 yards of total offense in the first half, and 165 yards came from Evans as he completed 10-of-27 passes. His numbers would have been even better, but there were five drops at costly times for the Pack.
Ball had as much trouble, but was able to put points on the board. He completed just 9-of-22 passes, but threw for 157 yards and three touchdowns with the Lowery interception.
State had trouble scoring on offense, but not in other areas and that was the case on the opening play of the second half. Darrell Blackman fielded the kickoff at the five-yard line, found a crease and exploded to the sidelines. After cutting back across the field, Blackman broke a final tackle at the five and scored on the 95-yard kickoff return. Blackman, who scored on a punt return two weeks ago at Maryland, had been kicked away from earlier in the game, and this time he made the Yellow Jackets pay for kicking to him.
Trailing now 21-20, the Wolfpack's defense stiffened and forced two straight Tech punts and yielded good field position for the offense. Again the offense couldn't capitalize, as Deraney missed back-to-back field goals, 49 and 53 yards respectively, and State still trailed by one.
Like Lowery earlier in the game, State's defense would make another huge play. On 3rd-and-6 from the Pack's 35-yard line, Ball dropped back looking for Calvin Johnson, but safety Garland Heath was all over it. Heath jumped the route and returned the interception to the Tech 27, giving the offense again great field position. Offensively, the game plan changed. The previous two drives stalled due to incompletions with the Pack on the fringe of Deraney's range, but this time State looked to the ground game to pick up some crucial yardage. Andre Brown would carry the ball on five of the six plays, netting 11 yards but giving Deraney a chance from 33-yards out. This time his kick was good, and State took its first lead of the game at 23-21 as time expired in the third quarter.
Three times State ventured into the red zone and all three times they had to settle for field goals, and this time it would be Tech that had to kick a field goal.
Tech followed Deraney's kick with a 16-play, 63-yard drive that took nearly six months off the clock before Travis Bell kicked a 25-yarder to give Tech a 24-23 lead. Keying the drive was the hard running of tailback Tashard Choice as he took advantage of State's choosing to pull a safety out the box and shade him towards Calvin Johnson. Choice rushed for 37 yards on the drive, pushing him over the 100-yard mark for the game.
Although Choice had it going on the ground, Tech wasn't done passing. Following a Wolfpack punt, Tech used six straight runs to lure the safety back into the box and Ball would find Calvin Johnson in single coverage down the sideline for a 33-yard gain to the Wolfpack 8-yard line. Two plays later, he would connect with James Johnson over A.J. Davis in the corner of the endzone for the touchdown, Ball's fourth of the day. The touchdown gave Tech a 31-23 lead with 2:24 remaining in the game.
NC State had its chances late, but on 4th-and-3 from deep in Tech territory, Hill dropped another pass that would have yielded a first down, and it ended State's chances at a comeback victory.
Evans finished the night completing 21-of-53 passes for a career-high 270 yards. Ball completed just 13-of-35 with two interceptions, but the Tech senior's four touchdown passes proved to be the difference.
The star of the night was the junior Calvin Johnson. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound wideout totaled nine catches for 168 yards and two scores, and he impacts the game in so many ways. Johnson controls what the opposing team has to defensively, and it opens opportunties for James Johnson and Tashard Choice, who finished with 164 yards rushing on 34 carries.
"We started to control the rush because we didn't want their quarterback running around," said Amato. "We had double coverage on Calvin, but when you do that, you have to take a man out of the box. We had to decide how to make it tougher on them and we decided to try and take out Calvin."
Evans wasn't helped much on the night by his receivers. The Pack had at least eight dropped passes on the night, stalling drives and preventing additional yardage and points on the board.
"We came in thinking we had a better chance to move the ball," said Amato. "But if you're going to throw it, you can't have seven or eight dropped passes. They do so much zone blitzing that it disrupts the running game, but our line did good reading the blitzes. We thought this was our best chance to move the ball. I don't think we've had this many dropped passes in the last three games, and we have good receivers."
After losing four straight, NC State (3-6) is now a loss away from being knocked out of bowl consideration. It doesn't get any easier as next weekend the team heads to Clemson, South Carolina to face a Tiger squad that is reeling after back-to-back losses.
"We have no room for error," said Amato. "To get to a bowl we have to win our next three games. None of our next few games will be easy."