Pack's Resilience the Difference

On an afternoon when toughness trumped tactics and serenity surpassed strategy, the North Carolina State Wolfpack earned an advanced degree in sports psychology.

Facing a savvy band of Pirates intent on crashing the BCS party, Tom O'Brien's young charges found a level of maturity far beyond their years, as they pulled off Saturday's first big upset.

Providing yet further proof that the Jimmies and Joes carry more weight in college football than the Xs and Os, the Wolfpack produced this September shocker simply because they found the mental toughness and resilience needed to stay in the ring and withstand several jarring blows landed by Skip Holtz's group from Greenville. This "Rally in Raleigh" couldn't have happened without N.C. State's ability to deal with several setbacks and absorb multiple negative shifts in momentum. A buffet table of backbreakers was served to State over the course of this collision in the Carolinas, but the home team never lost faith.

The Wolfpack were stomach-punched right out of the gate, as starting quarterback Harrison Beck threw a pick-six that gave the Pirates a lead despite the absence of any production from Patrick Pinkney and the rest of ECU's offense. But State bounced back to drive downfield.

On that drive, a fumble on first and goal from the ECU 1 created a nine-yard loss, but backup quarterback Russell Wilson—who made plays all afternoon long—was able to evade a defender and throw an ice-veins touchdown pass on 3rd and goal from the 4.

ECU would take a 14-7 lead, and Beck—briefly re-inserted into the game—fumbled after converting a fourth down inside the Pirate 15 late in the first half. At halftime, the Wolfpack could have gotten discouraged, in light of all their missed opportunities. But they just… kept… coming, tying the score on their first drive in the third quarter, with Wilson delivering the goods once again.

Yes, the formidable crew from Conference USA—ranked for good reason—continued to answer State's own inspired responses, as Pinkney finally found some rhythm and guided his teammates to a second offensive touchdown and a 21-14 lead. But even though the Pirates continued to keep their noses in front for most of the afternoon, the Pack—given more chances to fold—simply refused to go away.

One of those invitations to give up came when the Pirates drove to the NCSU 2 early in the fourth quarter, but the red-shirted defense stuffed ECU on three straight plays to get a hard-earned stand. Several minutes later, the same basic scenario played out once again, and for the second straight time, the Wolfpack guarded their end zone with remarkable ferocity, denying the Pirates a game-sealing touchdown after Pinkney led his teammates to the State 3 with 5:24 left in regulation. Because of the heroics of their defense, the Pack stayed in the hunt entering the game's home stretch.

It was at this point that Wilson—a gifted but green signal caller—found the ability to perform under pressure, growing up before the eyes of his coaches and teammates. On a few earlier occasions, the youngster threw ill-advised passes in or near the ECU red zone when he had open running lanes that would have enabled him to gain a first down and sustain a Wolfpack drive. For all that State had accomplished in the game's first 55 minutes—and despite having roughly 20 more snaps in enemy territory than the Pirates did—the fact remained that the O'Brien Boys had not been able to finish drives with any consistency. In crunch time, with his club trailing 24-17, Wilson's margin for error had evaporated. A young quarterback's moment of truth had arrived.

Sure enough, Wilson's aim proved to be sufficient in his team's urgent hour of need.

After hitting two passes for a quick 43 yards, Wilson—facing 3rd and 7 at the ECU 9 with just under 1:30 left in regulation—found tight end George Bryan for a first down at the 1. Following a false-start penalty—yet another blow to the psyche that could have caused the Wolfpack to wilt in the heat of battle—Wilson remained poised, as he went back to Bryan for the tying touchdown with 1:12 left on the clock. After a full day of fighting uphill, the Pack had attained equal status after 60 minutes.

Entering the coin-flip world of overtime, it finally became realistic for State to dream of an upset. And when State defensive lineman Shea McKeen sacked Pinkney on the first series of overtime, creating a fumble that the Wolfpack recovered, the home team finally gained the upper hand in this emotional encounter. In many ways, though, dealing with prosperity—not easy for any young ballclub—posed a challenge equal to anything the Wolfpack had experienced up to that point. It would have been so understandable for the home team to let down its guard on offense and settle for a long field goal that, if missed, would have handed the advantage right back to East Carolina in a second sequence of overtime.

Once again, though, the Pack displayed poise precisely when their youth suggested that they would have flinched in the midst of a football fistfight.

Mindful of Wilson's abilities as a passer and a scrambler, East Carolina's forward-surging defense watched as State running back Andre Brown scooted for 16 on a draw. One play later, Brown barreled into the end zone for a game-winning 10-yard touchdown, sending Carter-Finley Stadium into orbit.

N.C. State faced adversity in multiple forms and flavors on Saturday afternoon, but with uncommon resolve and poise in the face of an experienced and credentialed opponent, the Wolfpack registered the biggest win of the Tom O'Brien era… and dashed the BCS dreams of Skip Holtz's heartbroken Pirates.

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