Behind Wilson and a Wolfpack defense that provided the big plays when they needed them most, NC State upset No. 15 East Carolina 30-24 on Saturday afternoon at Carter-Finley stadium in an overtime thriller.
The Pack started overtime on defense, where a battered and bruised defensive line came up with the play of the game on first down from the Pack's 11-yard line. Shea McKeen broke through the line and blind-sided Pinkney, laying a crushing blow on the quarterback that dislodged the ball and Willie Young pounced on it to keep the Pirates off the board.
"I knew I had enough time to get out there," said McKeen. "I think I was unblocked on that, but all I know is he gave a little pump, and I don't think he realized I was coming behind him."
Andre Brown did the rest on the Pack's overtime possession, needing just two carries to punch it in and give his team an unexpected win over their in-state rival.
"I just said I'm not going to rely on the kicker to be honest with you," said Brown. "I'm going to go out here and put this boy in and get off this field.
"It feels good. It was a humble victory. I respect all of them guys over there."
But the Pack would have never made it to overtime if not for Wilson's game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. Taking over down a touchdown with less than five minutes left, the redshirt freshman hit sophomore wideout Jarvis Williams for a 26-yard strike on the first play, and he followed it up with a 17-yard pass to Brown on the next to move the Pack deep in East Carolina territory. A few plays later Wilson made a clutch throw to Bryan on third-and-seven, then hit Bryan again for the game tying touchdown to send the game into overtime. Originally the play was ruled incomplete, but replay confirmed that Brown did make the catch.
"It just happened to fall into my hands... I caught it," said Bryan. "I knew it."
Wilson, making his third start and playing in just his second full game, threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against the vaunted East Carolina defense. He made the big plays when he had to, used his legs to buy time in the pocket, escaped trouble, and showed a leadership the Pack hasn't seen from the quarterback position in some time.
"We just have to keep working together," said Wilson. "Keep playing... weather the storm and make plays when we need to.
"I've just got to make plays... continue to make the smart plays to move the team down the field and get points when we need to."
The Pack lost another starter during the game when Nate Irving went down with a lower leg injury in the first half. The standout linebacker returned briefly in the second half but was ruled out for the game by the end of the third quarter.
East Carolina jumped out front first, receiving a big play from its defense.
NC State head coach Tom O'Brien chose to bring in Beck on the first two third downs of the game, failing to convert the first and causing disaster on the second. Facing third-and-seven, Beck tried to hit receiver Jay Smith over the middle but the pass was well behind the redshirt freshman. Smith tried to snag it but popped the ball into the air, where Pirate defensive back Van Eskridge caught the ball and romped 23 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-0 East Carolina.
"We were going to do that, especially backed up, because that is Russell's toughest situation, third-and-long," said O'Brien. "It backfired on us. We were concerned about turning the ball over. That's how smart I am right? I think as the game went on, Russell acclimated much better and got going."
But the Pack offense responded, aided by starting inside East Carolina territory, tying the game up on a 4-yard pass from Wilson to Brown. Wilson bought time in the pocket by avoiding a defender, ran right and hit Brown streaking to his left wide open in the endzone. The freshman quarterback went 5-for-6 for 39 yards on the drive and picked up a first down with his legs on a fourth down play inside the 5-yard line to help the Pack tie the score at seven.
The Pirates scored the final points of the half thanks to a big play from tight end Davon Drew. Pinkney hit Drew on a long pass over the middle and Drew rumbled 39 yards, shedding Pack defenders on the way to a touchdown. The play capped off a 77-yard drive that saw Pinkney throw for 66 of those yards on the way to taking a 14-7 lead into the locker room at the half.
Wilson and the Pack came out gunning to start the second half, tying the score through the air on a couple of long plays. Wilson found freshman tight end George Bryan, who ran 30 yards before being forced out of bounds. Then, facing 3rd-and-17 at the East Carolina 20-yard line, Wilson threw a bullet that Jarvis Williams hauled in with a leaping grab in the endzone for a touchdown. Williams was hit as he caught the ball but hung on as he fell to the ground for the score.
But the Pirates responded immediately on a quick scoring drive to retake the lead. After a good return gave the Pirates the ball at their own 37-yard line, Pickney hit Jamar Bryan for a 22-yard pass then Norman Whitney hit a 42-yard run for a touchdown to make it 21-14 in favor of East Carolina. The two teams then traded field goals to make it 24-17 late in the fourth quarter before the heroics of Wilson, McKeen, and Brown.
"Certainly a great effort by our football team," said O'Brien. "East Carolina is deserving of all the accolades they have... they will have a great year.
"As I told [my players], for the first time I've been here, we finally play 60 minutes of hard-nosed football. We're really happy with this one and it doesn't get any easier with South Florida coming in next Saturday night."
Entering the game, NC State had statistically one of the worst offenses in college football. The Pack hadn't scored an offensive touchdown against a DI-A team in 13 quarters, and East Carolina ranked No. 18 nationally in total defense.
The Pack finished with 387 yards of total offense, including 257 through the air, and held the ball for over 33 minutes, nearly seven minutes more than the Pirates.
Next up for the Wolfpack (2-2) is a nonconference game against nationally ranked South Florida, but O'Brien said his team will take a day to enjoy this victory over the Pirates.
"We're certainly going to enjoy this one tonight," he said. "My outlook on the season is week-to-week. Tomorrow I'm going to come in and look at South Florida, see who I got, see who is healthy, we're going to put a gameplan together and everything is going to go into beating them this week.
"We're playing hard. We're learning how to play hard. If we continue to do that, we're going to have some chances to win football games. That's the only way we can win them right now with all the injuries and lack of personnel we have right now."