Posted: 10:36 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013
By Omega Wolf
Niklas Sade is N.C. State's MVP so far this season. Every kickoff has resulted in a touchback, but, more importantly, he hasn't missed a field goal. The Pack could not have won without all three of his three pointers against Richmond, but none was more important than the clutch 48-yarder he drilled with just 33 seconds left. Sade's kick put his team up 23-21 in a maddening game that saw the Pack dominate total yardage (444-322) but nearly lose to an FCS school for the first time since 1987 due to penalties and turnovers. N.C. State was penalized eight times for 89 yards, including an offsides call that cost the team a game-clenching pick six, and coughed the ball up four times, including twice in the red zone.
Danny Rocco's gameplan worked to perfection in the first half. Feeling his team had a disadvantage against N.C. State's front four, Rocco utilized numerous quick throws and bubble screens from Michael Strauss to ease down the field again and again. Even with preseason all-American receiver Ben Edwards knocked out of the game after hauling in Strauss's first five completions, the Spiders were unstalled and undaunted. Strauss threw for 218 first-half yards, leading his team to a 21-13 advantage at intermission.
Behind Pete Thomas, who was 14-for-18 for 159 yards in the first half, N. C. State ran up an impressive yardage total of its own, actually holding a 263-245 yardage edge at the break. But a costly fumble inside the 20 and being forced to settle for a pair of Sade field goals, including one from the two yard line, put the Pack on the wrong end of the scoreboard, and they would stay there until Sade's kick with 33 seconds left. Thomas finished the game 24-for-31 with 237 yards, but he was picked twice and is still waiting for his first touchdown throw.
The Pack was also penalized six times for 49 yards in the first half, including several roughing the passer penalties from a frustrated front four that often got penetration, just too late to make any difference since Strauss was getting the ball out so quickly.
It seemed clear that N.C. State would continue to move the ball in the second half, but the question was whether or not they could make the adjustments to slow Strauss. The answer was resoundingly yes, but the Pack shot themselves in the foot so many times that it almost didn't matter. The Spiders didn't get a second-half first down until the two-minute mark of the third quarter and managed just 77 yards in the second half.
After a nice return by Rashard Smith to open the second half, the Pack marched 38 yards on seven plays to get deep in Spider territory, but Thomas threw a dart through Bryan Underwood's outstretched hands that Wayne Pettus picked off to kill the drive. After the teams traded punts, Strauss botched a hand off that was recovered by Art Norman inside the 10. This time the Pack converted, as Bryant Shirreffs found Matt Dayes for a seven yard score.
Shirreffs ran and threw for a score, but after Norman sacked Strauss and sat on him while his teammates gathered up his second, second-half fumble, Shirreffs fumbled it right back. After that the change of pace QB was done for the day. It was Thomas's show. While he may not have reminded anyone of Russell Wilson, Thomas made enough plays to set up Sade for the win. In addition to his 237 yards through the air, he scrambled his way to 47 more yards on the ground. Thomas locks in on his primary target, and when the play is not there, he is either too quick to scramble or panics and forces a pass into coverage. But this is just his second start after sitting out a year, so perhaps better decision making will come through experience.
It was a mixed bag for the Pack true freshman playmakers. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a big catch on the game-winning drive and finished with eight catches for 87 yards, but he also fumbled away a scoring opportunity in the opening quarter that helped lead to the Pack playing catch up for nearly the entire game. Dayes had five catches for 47 yards and a score and added 43 yards on the ground, but he averaged just a hair over three yards a carry. Shirreffs accounted for both Pack touchdowns but fumbled inside the five yard line. When you live by the true freshmen, sometimes you are going to almost die by them.
While the game ball has to go to the kicker in this one, whoever lit the fire under the defense at half time deserves a shout out. Strauss was sacked three times after intermission and hurried on a number of the throws he did manage to get off. Richmond averaged seven yards per play in the first half, but that number was down to 4.6 at game's end. Robert Caldwell made 13 stops.
It's not often that you win when you are minus two in turnovers, especially against a well-coached, veteran team. But a win is a win.